An increasingly strategic global responsibility has emerged in which the Modi government could be seen as a critical pillar in the fight against the pandemic.
Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, BioNTech. As the world holds its breath and governments scramble to provide emergency authorisations to coronavirus vaccines in development, these companies have become the byword for hope in a pandemic-stricken world.
There are other vaccines too, many at advanced stages of trial, with a high possibility of success - and virologists say the world will have a basket of options to choose from early next year. Rarely have the worlds of science, public health, economy and global balance of power intersected as they have in times of Covid-19. And rarely has so much hinged on a single variable - the development of one or more vaccines to protect the world from the coronavirus pandemic.
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Yet, as the largest global supplier of drugs and producer of 60 per cent of the world's vaccines, it is India which is set to play an increasingly strategic and central global role in the manufacturing and distribution of several possible Covid-19 shots. Long known as the “pharmacy of the world,” India is preparing on a war footing to enable the logistics and infrastructure for the daunting task of manufacturing and distributing billions of doses of Covid vaccines - and a glimpse of that came through a series of events.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday visited Serum Institute of India in Pune as part of efforts to get a first-hand perspective of the preparations, challenges and roadmap in India′s endeavour to vaccinate its citizens against COVID-19 as well as distribute it around the world. Earlier in the day, he visited Zydus Biotech Park in Ahmedabad to know more about the indigenous DNA-based vaccine being developed by Zydus Cadila. He also visited Bharat Biotech facility at Hyderabad as part of his three-city visit to personally review the COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing process. Serum Institute of India, the largest producer of vaccines in the world by volume, has partnered with global pharma giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University for the vaccine against COVID-19.
Separately, Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla recently briefed a group of diplomats in New Delhi on India's vaccine development programme and said that the country would use its vaccine production capacity to help the world in fighting the Covid-19 crisis, and that New Delhi was ready to help countries enhance their cold chain and storage capacities for delivery of vaccines.
“I reiterate our Prime Minister's commitment that India's vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis. India will also help interested countries in enhancing their cold chain and storage capacities for the delivery of vaccines," he said. “To give a flavour of India's robust and resilient progress in vaccine development and in the trial process, we have planned to take a delegation of resident Ambassadors for a tour of our vaccine and diagnostic facilities in Pune,” he said.
Mumbai Airport, India's largest gateway for pharmaceutical export, is already in a battle-ready mode. It has put together a task force to handle the shipments of COVID-19 vaccine and facilitate proper planning and collaboration between the airport and global stakeholders, including supply chain partners, vaccine distributors and government agencies. It has made special arrangements to ensure that the import and export of COVID-19 vaccines remains a hassle-free process for all involved, and a 24-hour customer service cell will provide status updates and pre-alerts for all COVID-19 vaccine consignments. The airport has made flexible slots available for ad hoc charter operations, which will play a vital role in ensuring quick facilitation of storage and transportation of the vaccine.
Apart from the mammoth order book of Serum Institute, Johnson and Johnson has struck a deal with the Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E to produce up to 500 million doses if its Covid-19 vaccine is successful. Bharat Biotech, the Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company, has a deal to manufacture 1 billion doses of Washington University's intranasal vaccine, and Indian pharmaceutical giant Dr Reddy's signed a deal to run a phase 2/3 human trials in India of Russia's controversial Sputnik vaccine and then produce 100 million doses. There are also at least a dozen indigenous vaccines being developed within India.
All this places India in a significant strategic and powerful position in terms of distributing the vaccine, particularly domestically and to non-Western countries. According to Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute, “Nearly 50% of whatever quantity we manufacture will be kept for India and the remaining will go to low- and middle-income countries”.
Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan meanwhile said last week that he was confident an approved vaccine will be rolled out in India in three to four months and the country had made arrangements to vaccinate 300 million people in the first phase. With nearly 9.5 million cases, India is also one of the worst affected countries by the virus, second only to the US - and the gargantuan task of inoculating its people would be one of biggest logistical exercises to be undertaken in the country.
Yet, global health experts and virologists have exuded confidence that with its proactive planning and past experience, India will be a key pillar in the global battle against the virus.
“From the country's previous experience with Polio and TB, India can develop and establish protocols to ensure the availability of the vaccine to the entire population in a cost-effective manner. Large private diagnostics players can play an important role in this by leveraging their vast network across the country, an established cold-chain network, and an already trained work-force,” said Anand K, CEO of SRL Diagnostics. Observing that one of the elements of success would be adopting a cohesive approach and collaboration between country leaders, corporations, NGOs, public servants, and the private sector, he said: “Creating awareness, trust, and curbing misinformation through collaboration with local influencers and leaders would also be vital.”
Amid a renewed surge in virus cases across the West, the world thus looks to India as the beacon of hope - and after burnishing its credentials early during the outbreak of the pandemic as the “Pharmacy of the World”, India is now ready to assume the mantle of the World's Vaccine Factory.