As the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer struggles with vaccine shortage, it is time the world takes a cold hard look at the management of the pandemic, from allowing mass gatherings to vaccine nationalism practiced by the developed nations.
As the footage comes in from India of the coronavirus rampaging the country in a brutal second wave, the fact cannot be denied that India is now the epicentre of the global coronavirus pandemic. The world's second-most populous nation is in deep crisis, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed by the pandemic, medicines and oxygen in short supply and strict curbs on movement in its biggest cities.
The story so far
India reported 386,452 news cases in the past 24 hours, while deaths from Covid-19 jumped by 3,498 over the last 24 hours, according to The Indian Health Ministry data. However, medical experts believe actual COVID-19 numbers may be five to 10 times greater than the official tally.
India has added about 7.7 million cases since the end of February, when its second wave picked up steam, according to a Reuters tally. The second wave of infections has driven the death toll up to almost 200,000.
Chris Murray, a prominent US disease modeller from the University of Washington, said the sheer magnitude of infections in India in a short period of time suggests an "escape variant" may be overpowering any prior immunity from natural infections in those populations. "That makes it most likely that it’s B.1.617," he said. But Murray cautioned that gene sequencing data on the coronavirus in India is sparse, and that many cases are also being driven by the UK and South African variants.
Why this is a global problem
India is the world's biggest producer of vaccines but does not have enough stockpiles to keep up with the second deadly COVID-19 wave. Its largest vaccine producers who was already struggling to increase capacity beyond 80 million doses a month due to a shortage of raw materials are now overwhelmed after a fire at the Serum Institute, which manufactures AstraZeneca's vaccine in India.
The Indian government has now temporarily banned exports of vaccine to bring the pandemic under control.
A forecast by Airfinity shows that if India were to maintain its strict ban, the nation would have enough doses to fully vaccinate its entire adult population by November. But that could lead to supply shortages elsewhere. According to a Sky News analysis, 35 countries have mostly relied on India for their jabs. About 98% of people receiving these doses are from low or lower-income countries.
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What’s more, India is also slated to produce more than 80% of 2.26 billion doses to COVAX - an alliance of 190 countries which aims to provide access to 92 lower and middle-income economies, which means the disruption to global vaccine supplies goes much further than expected.
Other countries had a part to play
The fact that India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, today does not have enough vaccines for its own people forces a cold hard look not just at some of its own decisions regarding large social gatherings but also at the vaccine nationalism that has been practiced by the west.
It is common knowledge that countries like the US and the UK have been hoarding a huge number of vaccines for themselves. According to the British Medical Journal, the US booked 800 million doses with six companies. Along with this deal, they had provisions for a billion more doses in contrast to its population of about 330 million. In short they have more vaccines than they need. Britain has done the same. A practice that has proved to be damaging for the developing and lower income countries in Africa and South Asia. And one that has now backfired on themselves.
A report by Business Standard reports scientists have now linked the nation of 1.3 billion people’s second wave to a more virulent strain, with the out-of-control outbreak providing a petri dish for further mutations to evolve that could challenge the vaccines now being distributed from the UK to Israel.
“There is certainly potential for new variants to emerge in a country the size of India that could pose a threat elsewhere,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, founder of the New Delhi and Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy. “It is in the world’s interest to ensure that India exits the pandemic at the earliest, and vaccination is the only way.”
There are growing calls from scientists across the world for a a more equal distribution of vaccines. "Some degree of vaccine nationalism is justified. Both [the US and the UK] have done a good job so far and fulfilled their moral obligations towards their own," Dr Alberto Giubilini from the University of Oxford's Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease programme told Sky news. He added: "Now they need to continue doing the morally right thing, which from this moment on is to share vaccines."
Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, believes a more equitable distribution of vaccines will help prevent. “By sending vaccines overseas to stop a virus from replicating elsewhere, you're not abandoning all care for your own population. Actually, you're securing the vaccine's efficacy.” he told Sky news
Global partners rush to India’s aid
This realisation and knowledge seems to be slowly spreading across the world, bolstered by the tremendous goodwill garnered by India earlier through its vaccine diplomacy. Countries all over the world have pledged and rushed urgent medical aid to India.
A first batch of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine will be sent to India on May 1. In addition, Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund, which markets Sputnik V globally, has signed deals with five Indian manufacturers for more than 850 million vaccine doses a year.
Senior US officials on Tuesday pledged sustained support for India in helping it deal with the world's worst current surge of COVID-19 infections, warning the country is still at the "front end" of the crisis and overcoming it will take some time.
The White House's National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, told a virtual event on the US assistance that President Joe Biden had told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a phone call on Monday: "You let me know what you need and we will do it.”
Campbell further told Reuters, ”We all have to realise that this is not a challenge that is going to resolve (in) the next several days," he said.
Tackling the crisis, he said, was important not just for the people of India but for the United States, given India's essential role as global provider of vaccines.
The UK too has shown support by sending in an urgent supply of vaccines, including 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators. India’s European partners too have jumped to its aid, with France sending eight large oxygen generating plants and Ireland, Germany and Australia sending oxygen concentrators and ventilators, an Indian foreign ministry official said, underlining the crucial need of oxygen.
The World Health Organization said it was working to deliver 4,000 oxygen concentrators, calling India's plight "beyond heartbreaking".
Two Indian government sources also told Reuters earlier on Tuesday that New Delhi expects to secure the biggest chunk of the 60 million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses the United States will share globally.