Vaccine Maitri: India shows the way to cooperative approach in combatting pandemic

Modi’s welcome proactive approach to supply vaccines globally


February 2, 2021

/ By / Pune

Vaccine Maitri: India shows the way to cooperative approach in combatting pandemic

India has launched the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive on January 16, 2020, starting with vaccination of health workers(MIG photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

India’s move to supply Covid-19 vaccines globally, but especially to the developing countries, including its neighbours, often free of cost, offers an example of how countries can cooperate even in the most difficult of times, instead of focusing just on themselves and their citizens. It is indeed the policy of Vaccine Maitri for a global community.

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French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered the boon of vaccination by using a weakened virus way back in the 19th century with the first vaccine that he developed for chicken cholera. Since then, such vaccines have become the first line of defence against many communicable diseases and many are under development around the world for a range of diseases including malaria.

Paradoxically, today, it is the French who are amongst those most reluctant and even in denial regarding the need for vaccination against Covid-19. A recent survey has shown that over 50 pc of French people would refuse to take vaccine for COVID19. Many would say that it is yet another example of the famous ‘French Exception’. However, one of the reasons is  related to the scepticism of vaccine’s effectiveness. French also have the fundamental questions on the practice of using vaccination as a cure from the disease. Many French also feel that injecting a virus, however weak, to generate antibodies to counter the full blown enemy entering into human bodies is ethically and medically wrong.

Those who want to nudge the historical but competitive relation between France and England believe that reason for French opposition for vaccination  lies in the broader dislike displayed by French to anything that comes from across the English Channel. The fact that the vaccination was  first discovered in England for small-pox, towards end of the 18th century by doctor Edward Jenner, has made French uncomfortable. When Louis Pasteur carried out successful experiments of vaccination and saved the population from rabies later in 19th century, French decried it as ‘English practice’ replete with unethical standards.

What comes as total surprise is the strong hesitation of the French to accept vaccination to defeat COVID19, when many European countries like Denmark , UK, Germany are in the process of third lockdown due to surge in COVID19. Also, in another ironical case, the French institute named after Pasteur recently abandoned its attempts to develop a Covid vaccine and was followed barely a few days later by French pharma giant Sanofi, which too gave up development of its own Covid vaccine.

The pandemic of COVID19 has been unprecedented. At the same time the scientists have also accomplished development of  COVID-19 vaccine within an unprecedented short-time. While vaccine development time is typically 10-15 years, the health regulatory authorities have given approvals for emergency use of COVID19-vaccines in less than one year.  Historically the fastest development of any vaccine was for mumps-vaccine, it took four years in 1960s. Development of vaccine is only the first step, then comes the delivery and distribution system, precisely like the supply chain to military in war.

Less unknown is the fact that not only there is express hesitancy in getting vaccinated by the public in developed countries. While 50 pc French do not want to get vaccinated, 30 pc British too show similar reluctance. The developed countries have also been hesitant in manufacturing vaccines purely from commercial point of view. When it comes to R&D of new vaccines, manufacturers are generally unwilling to invest time and money into long period of R&D since they may not recoup their costs and make a profit early in the business. There is also widespread belief that epidemics originate mainly in the developing or in least developing countries (LDCs) due to their poor sanitation and that the developed countries remain aloof. But that belief was shattered  when  the epidemics started  reaching  at their door steps , due to globalised world, as is the case in COVID19.

De-emphasising the role of vaccines due to selfish motives by the multinationals has affected the distribution systems as well. Developing  countries have to develop their own delivery and supply systems and cold chain for delivering the effective vaccines to their poor and remote communities. Very few had seriously heeded to such hidden selfish economic motives of the business in the developed countries with the exception of Bill and Melinda Foundation, and GAVI ( Global alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations). Bill Gates believed that if the developed countries do not cooperate in manufacturing vaccines for the pandemic, the death toll in the developed countries would multiply exponentially.

United Nations had made weak efforts to address this fragmented issue of immunisation through vaccination. UN Agencies like WHO and  UNICEF do not have the money to pay the high prices charged by the developed countries manufacturers. While the businesses like automobile manufacture shifted to the developing countries-mainly to improve the profits due to cheap labour-after opening of economies,  the similar phenomenon did not happen in vaccine manufacture, barring in few countries like India and then in China. United Nations had great role to play, but that opportunity was missed. UN always looked for ‘after-treatment’ than ‘early-prevention’. For example, the UN could have created an institute to develop and manufacture the vaccines in the developing countries in proactive way by identifying the possible viruses in advance, guessing their mutations and variants. Creating the depository or a vaccine-bank for equitable distribution in eventual pandemic. In fact it was suggested in the past.

WHO is  now promoting an equitable shared mechanism for the vaccines to fight COVID19 particularly for least developing countries. Though it is very late suggestion and definitely a reactive one rather than proactive, UN through WHO has developed ‘Access to COVID19 Tools’ ( ACT) Accelerator. It is a global collaboration to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. The framework is laden with euphoric  and quixotic ideas devoid of practical perceptions. It is beyond any one’s imagination that after months of spread of  all-encompassing pandemic any country could agree to global equality of access to vaccines to other countries, before achieving the same within their own countries.

Covax facility is created as part of ACT Accelerator. It would be armed with funds promised and donated mainly by rich countries and philanthropists. Currently, 189 countries are part of this facility. Its target is to provide at least 2 billion COVID19 vaccine doses by the end of 2021. The success of the Covax is in doubt. Modelling exercise supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates has suggested that if these vaccines are grabbed by high income group countries without equitable access to  low and middle income group countries, global COVID-19 deaths will double. That would be collapse of Covax.

In such scenario, India’s vaccine research and manufacturing  have accomplished the most remarkable and exceptional results with finesse. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government  took visionary steps taking into account well developed manufacturing hub for pharmaceuticals and vaccines in India. It has through strategic approaches  skilfully addressed the historical pandemic of COVID19 . PM Modi realised that India, which is known as ‘pharmacy of the world’ could be the game-changer not only in developing the vaccine but also help India to set an example in ‘health diplomacy’, that United Nations is attempting at global scale for long time.

Undeterred by the China’s border clashes that turned out to be major distraction from managing what has turned out to be  singularly uncertain, unpredictable and atypical national crisis, PM Modi kept walking on the path that led to unparalleled dividend for India on national and global platform. The well-established manufacturing  facilities like  Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biological E., Cadilla , Hetero Biopharma, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Zydus, Gennova among others  allowed  India to take a global lead that is now difficult to challenge even by China. The smart collaboration with institutes abroad like Oxford and AstraZeneca  has been the right step as the global crisis  require global cooperation.  There has also been route  of self-reliance by developing and manufacturing of vaccine indigenously, under the clarion call by Modi on ‘Atma-Nirbhar Bharat’.

Practicing of health diplomacy is already allowing India to take centre stage in managing the pandemic.  Many experts have doubted and have written in social media on India’s ability to vaccinate 1.3 billion people and still fulfil the promise to help other countries.

India as such makes more than 60 pc of the vaccines that world uses. Apart from being at the forefront of supplying medicines like hydroxychloroquine to more than 100 countries, it has been helping nearly 90 countries on other pharmaceuticals, test kits, and other essential equipment.

Despite challenges, and despite the doubts on India’s capability, India has launched the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive on January 16, 2020, starting with vaccination of health workers.

More than two billion doses are needed to protect Indian population. It has also planned and initiated the supply 20 million doses to other nations. About four million have already been delivered so far to Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Seychelles. There have also been commercial exports to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil and Bolivia.  Brazil’s message comparing the delivery of the vaccine to Hanuman bringing the Sanjivini plant, a herbal medicine found in India in its mythological scriptures, went viral in Indian media but also taught parts of Hindu epic Ramayan to Brazilians thru Wikipedia. ‘Neighbourhood first’ is the Modi-government’s priority element in foreign policy, but considering its promise to distribute vaccines to Latin America, Africa, and former Soviet republics in Central Asia, it is more like the ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ or Global Community.

History has shown that even countries that have strained relations with each other have benefitted from ‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ and  ‘Shuttle Diplomacy’ and have succeeded in mending  their ties. It is not farfetched to imagine if same can be envisioned between India-Nepal and India-Bangladesh relations. Simply put, India has longer track record of supplying medicines and vaccines to the rest of the world, than any other country, including China. There are good signs that India has been transparent in demonstrating the results of vaccine in terms of health and safety as well as containing the pandemic.

India on Republic Day Parade of January 26, 2021, displayed the deadliest weapon ‘ Super-Brahmos’ made in-house by its own defence scientists. Many countries have written to India that they want to use it on their own people!!  The Weapon is called the ‘ Vaccine’ to fight a war called COVID19.

The author is chairman TERRE, IIT Alumnus and former director UNEP

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