As Dr S Jaishankar makes his first trip to the US, after Joe Biden took over as the President, enhancing supply of vaccines to India is one of his primary objectives.
This week India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar has begun his first visit to the United States after Joe Biden took over as the President. While he will be meeting a number of high- ranking officials there including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and his counterpart Secretary of State Antony Blinken, one of the primary objectives of the 5-day trip this time is to try and enhance supplies of coronavirus vaccines in India.
As the second wave of the pandemic has intensified in India with number of cases shooting over 4 lakh per day earlier this month--it has abated in recent weeks, the country has been suffering from an acute shortage of vaccines. Like most other nations, India opted for a staggered vaccination programme, focussing first on frontline warriors, then to the elderly population and finally to those above 18 years old from this month.
The rate of vaccination has however dropped just as the number of people eligible for the jab has increased. In April on an average over 30 lakh vaccines were administered per day which has come down to 16.22 lakh this month. As the only sure shot way of fending off the virus, there is a massive scramble for vaccines now. To mitigate that India needs all the help possible and Jaishankar is slated to hold meetings with representatives of three major vaccine makers in the US--Pfizer, Moderna and J&J, to discuss how supplies can be ramped up for India.
“We remain engaged with US entities on the prospects of procuring vaccines from the U.S. and also perhaps manufacturing them in India subsequently. This would augment our vaccine availability,” said Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson, MEA at a press briefing on May 20.
Jaishankar is also expected to discuss plans for production of J&J’s single shot vaccines at Hyderabad-based Biological E for domestic use. It was originally part of US plans for the Quad to provide one billion doses for South east Asian countries by the end of next year. The need for production of more vaccines in India along with the efficacy of a single shot vaccine in accelerating the programme makes it important for India to be able to use it for itself. Even if the meetings bear fruit, actual production may take time as the vaccines would have to be approved but it would be significant step forward.
“I would like to emphasise that all vaccines that may be procured from abroad would need to be as per our regulatory guidelines. I understand that the US has also indicated that any vaccine that it sends abroad would be after obtaining FDA clearance for product quality,” Bagchi added.
The urgency is palpable and the minister and his team have been working overtime. Partly due to India’s diplomatic efforts, the US recently agreed to support a waiver of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights on vaccines but the initiative fell short as it met with opposition from other nations specially in the EU. India along with South Africa has been passionately making the case for a waiver of patents for vaccines in WTO since October last year.
As India seeks to expedite approvals for import of vaccines - last month it did away with the precondition of successful local trials for vaccines already tested abroad, it is also keen to expand the list of domestic vaccine manufacturers. From just two to begin with--Pune based Serum Institute and Krishna Ella’s Bharat Biotech, the country has now permitted production of Russia’s Sputnik vaccines. Another vaccine that is likely to start production soon is Zydus Cadila’s ZYCoV-D.
India seeks to procure 216 crore doses it needs to vaccinate its adult population by end of the year. If it is able to do that, Jaishankar’s trip to the US would have played an important role in it.