Covid-19: After vaccine maitri, get vaccine diplomacy right

By: |
May 24, 2021 6:15 AM

The Centre should contract more vaccines from global vaccine-makers and distribute these to the states

New Delhi must try and clinch some contracts with other vaccine-makers, shedding its rigid stance on issues like indemnity conditions.

It is good news external affairs minister S Jaishankar will be visiting the US this week to try and sort out issues relating to the import of raw materials needed to make Covid-19 vaccines and also to see if India can import vaccines. Media reports suggest that India is hoping to bring home 35% of the 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine doses that the US has said it would send overseas and that Jaishankar will also be meeting representatives of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson &Johnson. Twenty million doses are neither here nor there for a country that’s looking for 1.9 billion doses, but it is a start. New Delhi must try and clinch some contracts with other vaccine-makers, shedding its rigid stance on issues like indemnity conditions.

A Reuters report says the Indian government and Pfizer are “at loggerheads” over the US drug maker’s demand for legal protection from any claims arising out of the use of its vaccine in the country. Having badly underestimated the impact of the pandemic and having failed to see the second wave—health minister Harsh Vardhan had said in early March India was in the “end-game’ of the pandemic—we can’t now afford any more missteps. Harsh Vardhan had said on March 7 that, unlike most other countries, “we have a steady supply of Covid-19 vaccines…”. But, sadly, what we’re seeing now is not a steady supply, but a slow trickle. The government had planned to inoculate 300 million by August but that looks difficult because the shortage of vaccines has crippled the vaccination drive. So far, close to 192 million doses have been administered been vaccinated and the daily run rate of vaccinations has plummeted; the seven-day moving average is at a near-two-month low.

Meanwhile, the virus is now ravaging rural India where the infections are believed to be soaring, partly because of the inadequate healthcare facilities, but for which we have no reliable tally. Indeed, in the absence of accurate counts—some reports suggest the number of deaths is twice the normal—the health ministry can barely claim infections are trending down; even without the full rural picture, the daily run rate of 2.5 lakh is quite high. One can’t lose sight of the fact that, in the first wave, infections had peaked at 97,000-plus and that the intensity of the pandemic was far less severe. That is proven by the larger number of fatalities this time around, especially of younger people.

While the government has promised 2.16 billion doses between August and December, one is not sure whether this is a realistic deliverable or an optimistic assumption. Serum Institute has said it would be able to ramp production to 100 million doses by July while Bharat Biotech will supply 100 million doses per month of Covaxin by September up from 15 million. Production of Sputnik-V will begin in India only in August; ahead of that, the country would have received some 8 million doses of the Russian vaccine, according to Indian envoy to Russia BV Varma.

Given how critical inoculating a sizeable share of the population as soon as possible is, the government must take on the responsibility of procuring vaccines and distributing them to the states. The Centre is in a far better position to negotiate with global vaccine-makers; states, on their own, will find it hard to do so. Before the situation worsens, New Delhi must reach out to other nations as well and use its goodwill to try and contract vaccines. We simply cannot afford to deal with a third wave, should it descend on us, in as haphazard and complacent a fashion as we approached the second one.

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