Covid-19 vaccination: A shot in the arm for India’s soft power

March 19, 2021 6:15 AM

India is not only getting more sure-footed in its own Covid-19 vaccination efforts, but AlSO has powered the roll-out in many nations, through its vaccine maitri

Experts say increasing the pace of vaccinations in India is a given, and ramping up should happen at a highly accelerated pace since, at the current pace of vaccination, reaching herd immunity may take upwards of two years.Experts say increasing the pace of vaccinations in India is a given, and ramping up should happen at a highly accelerated pace since, at the current pace of vaccination, reaching herd immunity may take upwards of two years.

By Pallava Bagla

India’s massive vaccination drive has been an eye-opener. That the country developed an indigenous vaccine against Covid-19 in less than eight months is itself amazing. But the bigger eye-popping feat is that India has been able to deploy the two vaccines to all corners of India and the globe. Now, even the old colonial master of India, the United Kingdom, is sourcing the vaccine from India even though it was developed in their own backyard. India is fast emerging as the global hub for vaccine manufacture. Experts say increasing the pace of vaccinations in India is a given, and ramping up should happen at a highly accelerated pace since, at the current pace of vaccination, reaching herd immunity may take upwards of two years.

Now, in a boost for India, countries that are part of the new `Quad’ grouping have declared that vaccines developed in the US will be manufactured by India while being funded by Japan and the inventory resourcing will be helped by Australia. India already supplies 60% of the vaccines sourced by the United Nations for its child immunisation programmes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often described this ‘as an extension of India’s ancient philosophy of vasudhaiva kutumbakam, which regards the world as one family.’

The success of the two vaccines that have been deployed is stupendous and there are another 28 candidate Indian vaccines in the pipeline; this is also a fact to be celebrated. The making of the Covishield vaccine is a classic case of India showing its prowess as a low-cost manufacturing hub for quality products. The Covishield vaccine is being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India with a licence from AstraZeneca and the Oxford University. That India was able to supply vaccines to all of its neighbours as part of ‘vaccine maitri’ is something that needs to be applauded. “This is a day many … have been dreaming of and working for more than 12 months,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “It’s gratifying to see the fruit of that labour. But success is still to come.”

India’s arch-rival Pakistan is likely to benefit by receiving the India-made Covishield vaccine to inoculate its citizens by accessing the vaccine from the UN-organised supply.

In a statement after the Quad summit, the White House said the US (with partners) will work with Biological E Ltd., to finance increased capacity to support Biological E’s effort to produce at least 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2022 using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

This is a shot in the arm for the Hyderabad-based vaccine manufacturer.

On the national stage, India has given more than 30 million doses of vaccines to its citizens, a massive number. As for a single-day peak, India gave 3.04 million doses of vaccine. It would amount to vaccinating half the population of Singapore in a single day! According to data from the external affairs ministry about 58.5 million doses of vaccines will be supplied by India to over 71 countries through various different channels—grants, commercial sales or the UN-backed facility. This is part of the global outreach programme dubbed ‘vaccine maitri’. Almost a third of the countries of the world will receive vaccines made in India to protect them against Covid-19.

India accorded ‘accelerated approval’, also sometimes referred as emergency use authorisation, to two India-made vaccines, Both vaccines are two-dose injectables vaccines and, as per the health ministry, upwards of 5.2 million people have received both the doses of the vaccine, which is like vaccinating the entire population of Singapore.

Even as India protected its own population, as part of vaccine maitri (or vaccine diplomacy), India supplied vaccines to most of its neighbours free of cost. Under the UN banner, the Serum Institute of India also supplied the first lot of vaccines to African nations like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

The deliveries mark the start of what will be the largest, most rapid and complex global rollout of vaccines in history. In total, COVAX aims to deliver at least 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2021, including at least 1.3 billion to the 92 economies eligible for support through the COVAX.

COVAX, the overarching effort to accelerate development and access to COVID vaccines, is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO) working in partnership with UNICEF as well as the World Bank, manufacturers and civil society organisations, and others.

Many had feared India may horde the vaccines for its own population. In fact India is not exhibiting any vaccine nationalism, but illustrating a maganimous approach. “We will not end the pandemic anywhere unless we end it everywhere,” says Dr Ghebreyesus. India’s delivery of the vaccines to Africa is the ‘first step towards realising our shared vision of vaccine equity, but it’s just the beginning,’ he adds.

Reports say the UK has asked Serum Institute of India to supply 10 million doses of the Covishield vaccine that was developed by Oxford University. Quite a reversal of roles, one can suggest, in just 73 years after India gained Independence from the UK.

Not just this, India also has robust pipeline of several new vaccines; 4-5 are in advanced stages of clinical trial. These would then come online or be made available for use in the population as trials get completed successfully. Indian scientists, engineers and industry worked in tandem to deliver a bouquet of vaccines even as the country was under a strict lockdown.

If all this doesn’t suffice as music to the ears, even Brazil is now buying 20 million doses of Covaxin. As a consequence, India’s science and health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, aptly described the last year as ‘India’s year of science’.

The combined strategy of effectively managing infections and the simultaneous ramping up of the vaccination has helped India minimise fear and panic. A word of caution: Covid-19-appropriate behaviour has to be continued till the pandemic is erased fully. India is surely on the road to recovery while saving the world as well. The pandemic may have begun in China, but beginning of the end of pandemic may well have begun by India.

The author is Delhi-based science and technology journalist

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