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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Covid-19 Vaccines: Politics, Nationalism and Diplomacy | K N Ninan

Saturday 20 February 2021

by K N Ninan

While commending the approval granted by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) to two covid vaccines manufactured in India Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that this was a great achievement for realising ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. Of the two vaccines, Covishield made by Serum Institute of India, Pune is based on knowhow provided by AstraZeneca and University of Oxford, while Covaxin was developed in India by Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad with support from the Indian Council of Medical Research. The DCGI in its order stated that the approval for the two vaccines was under emergency use authorisation (EUA) and for restricted use.

However, some well-known Indian virologists such as Dr Gagandeep Kang, a Professor of Microbiology CMC, Vellore with extensive experience in vaccine research in India have questioned the hasty approval granted especially to Covaxin without efficacy data. For instance, Dr Kang noted that the drug regulator’s approval violated its own guidelines to vaccine manufacturers issued in September 2020 that explicitly stated that 50% efficacy would be considered acceptable for emergency use approval. She further stated that the Indian drug regulatory authority seemed to have followed a path taken by Russian and Chinese drug regulators in not requiring human efficacy data for approval. It has been alleged that initially (on January 01, 2021) the drug regulator approved only Covishield for EUA and sought efficacy data from Covaxin. However, within a day the expert committee which advises the drug regulator reconvened and approved Covaxin for EUA even before it fulfilled the conditions stipulated earlier.

Prime Minister Modi recently admitted that he had been subject to extreme pressure but went by the advice of scientists. But the PM did not disclose as to who or which entities pressurised him for approving the covid vaccines. Coomi Kapoor, a leading journalist in an article (Indian Express January 17, 2021) has referred to a tweet by BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy on January 02, 2021 where he derided the non-approval of the ‘swadeshi’ vaccine and approval of the ‘angrez’ vaccine. Tweeting in angrezi is OK but approving an angrez vaccine is questionable! Is it proper to invoke the nationalism narrative even in matters concerning the health and lives of the people amid a raging pandemic that has claimed over 2.22 million lives globally with over 1.54 lakhs in India alone? Lest we forget, even before the advent of the Modi era India has been recognised as a global leader in production of vaccines (accounting for 60% of the world’s vaccine output) and as a supplier of cheap generic drugs.

The vaccine hesitancy being witnessed in the country with only around 50% of the targeted health workers coming forward for vaccination is not surprising due to lack of transparency on the part of the government in clarifying about the approval process and dispelling fears about the safety of the vaccines. If this is the experience with health workers what will be the situation when the vaccine drive is extended to others including senior citizens with co-morbidities. The authorities were quick to dismiss the post-vaccination deaths of 22 persons who took the vaccine as being unrelated to the vaccine and attributed that to other reasons such as heart attack, prevalence of co-morbidities, etc. US President Joe Biden, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Philip were among the first in their countries to be vaccinated. Had Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, a doctor himself emulated their US and UK counterparts and got vaccinated early on it would have instilled confidence in the public.

The Modi government, however, needs to be appreciated for its ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ whereby it has rushed supplies of covid vaccines to its South Asian neighbours and other friendly and needy countries even before fulfilling its domestic needs. India has already shipped more than 55 lakh vaccine doses to Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Seychelles, Afghanistan, and Mauritius under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. It has also exported 2 million doses of covid vaccines to Brazil which reported a bad experience with the Chinese vaccine imported earlier which reported efficacy levels of 50% or less in trials in Brazil. Similar exports to South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are in the pipeline. The Prime Minister in his recent address to the World Economic Forum in Davos announced that more covid vaccines will be available in the coming days and India will supply the vaccines to all needy countries. While western countries have revealed their true face by cornering the world’s supplies of covid vaccines without any concern for the poor and developing countries, India has provided succour by coming to their rescue.

India’s vaccine diplomacy is a fitting reply to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has led to serious fiscal crisis and debt burden in some countries such as Sri Lanka, Maldives who are unable to repay the loans borrowed from the Chinese for implementing BRI projects in their countries. In fact, unable to service its huge debt burden Sri Lanka was forced to lease out its Hambantota port to China for 99 years. Malaysia under former PM Mahathir Mohammed even cancelled some proposed BRI projects in Malaysia to avoid the Chinese debt trap. China which has been threatening India on its northern borders and encircling India through its ‘string of pearls’ strategy is obviously not happy with India’s vaccine diplomacy. In a commentary in the Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese communist party dated January 07th, 2021, the writer stated that “New Delhi could take note that vaccines should not be a geopolitical tool and vaccine exports is not a contest”.

(The author is an economist)

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