Free vaccines and India’s humanitarian diplomacy

A medic shows a vial of AstraZeneca's COVISHIELD coronavirus vaccine in Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday after the country received 1.5 million doses of the drug manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. |  REUTERS
A medic shows a vial of AstraZeneca’s COVISHIELD coronavirus vaccine in Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday after the country received 1.5 million doses of the drug manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. | REUTERS

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times

Large parts of the world are still reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus, with renewed lockdowns in effect in many places. With every stricken country focused on tackling its COVID-19 crisis, there is little international generosity in donating large quantities of medicines or vaccines when demand for them is sky-high.

So, when India in recent days delivered millions of COVID-19 vaccines as gifts to countries in the Indian Ocean region, it attracted international attention.

More than five million Indian-made vaccines were airlifted last week to countries extending from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Mauritius and the Seychelles. And millions of more free vaccines are on their way this week.

The scale of India’s vaccine gifts is unrivaled. No other country has delivered millions of free vaccines to other nations — not even China, which has pursued its own vaccine diplomacy in a bid to repair the damage to its global image from the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Chinese soil. The gifts help to highlight India’s enormous vaccine-manufacturing capacity.

What stands out the most about India’s humanitarian gesture is that it was launched just four days after the country began vaccinating its own citizens, starting with health-care workers. On receiving the first shipment of Indian vaccines, the prime minister of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan called it “altruism” that “precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs.” The overseas vaccine shipments extend from India’s ambitious plan to inoculate its huge 1.3 billion population in one of the world’s biggest COVID-19 vaccination drives.

India’s free-vaccine diplomacy, however, has been driven by more than altruism. There are geopolitical considerations at play, including building goodwill and influence and countering China’s growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region. Supplying free vaccines to combat a raging pandemic also seems a better choice for New Delhi than providing direct aid in another form.

One of India’s strengths is that it supplies more than 60% of the world’s vaccines against various diseases. Now it is leveraging that manufacturing heft by embarking on what has been billed as humanitarian diplomacy — the supply of free vaccines to countries in its extended neighborhood.

Its extensive vaccine-manufacturing infrastructure also explains why India, as research by Fitch Solutions suggests, will be able to inoculate most of its vulnerable citizens such as health-care workers and the elderly by mid-2021 — ahead of the much-smaller South Korea, for example.

India already has agreed to supply more than one billion coronavirus vaccines to various countries and ­to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative aimed at poorer countries. India is currently manufacturing two vaccines — the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, known in India as Covishield, and Covaxin, developed by the Indian pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech. Three other Indian companies are close to wrapping up development of their own vaccines.

Before India granted emergency approval to Covishield and Covaxin in early January, the privately-owned Serum Institute of India (SII) — the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume and the leading production partner of AstraZeneca-Oxford — had already manufactured and stocked between 70 to 80 million Covishield doses. This large stockpile has meant that India has enough vaccines to share with other countries.

Furthermore, India’s rapidly falling coronavirus infections have given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government greater room to advance vaccine diplomacy. Daily new cases in India — a distant second to the United States in aggregate infections — have dramatically declined since last fall.

The international spotlight on the competitive vaccine offerings of the United States, Britain, Russia and China has helped obscure India’s role. Since the pandemic began, India has quietly donated or commercially exported crucial items that have encountered massive demand surges, such as COVID-19 test kits, personal protection equipment and medicines for coronavirus symptoms. India, the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs, shipped 50 million tablets of hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. last spring at then-American President Donald Trump’s request.

China, while exploiting its pharmaceutical clout for commercial ends throughout the pandemic, has thus far announced only modest vaccine donations. Its aggressive push to sell vaccines to developing nations, however, has suffered a setback after its leading inoculation candidate turned out to just 50% effective in late-stage trials in Brazil. Indeed, Brazil has turned to India, importing two million vaccines in recent days.

Against this background, will India’s vaccine diplomacy tangibly aid its foreign-policy interests? As more than 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops remain locked in a months-long Himalayan military standoff, India feels increasingly hemmed in by the expanding Chinese influence in its neighborhood.

India is hoping that, in contrast to the coronavirus’s indelible association with China as the country of origin, it will be remembered for helping many of its neighbors to immunize the vulnerable segments of their populations against the disease.

Still, with China spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi can scarcely reverse its eroding regional clout with just the goodwill generated from its large vaccine donations. India needs to do a lot more on a sustained basis. This demands it shed its intrinsic diffidence in favor of proactive diplomacy.

In fact, there is the question of whether India will bear the financial burden of supplying more free coronavirus vaccines to neighboring countries beyond the initial shipments. The issue whether such vaccines will be free for all of India’s own citizens has yet to be settled.

India’s large overseas shipments, however, belie the current Western narrative that wealthy nations are monopolizing the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and fueling a widening gap in access around the world. As with the shots against many other diseases, from polio and pneumonia to meningitis and measles, India is likely to be the largest and most-affordable source of COVID-19 vaccines, especially as new inoculation candidates enter into Indian production after approval.

In fact, the paradox is that many wealthy countries, especially in the European Union, have been slow to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, making India’s robust vaccine industry stand out as a model.

The Indian industry’s role will be central to ending the pandemic because only India has the vast infrastructure at present to meet the global vaccine demand. However, the extensive damage and five deaths from last week’s major fire at a new building at the SII campus were a reminder that, at a time when many low- and middle-income countries are depending on Indian production, unforeseen events could potentially disrupt supply of essential vaccines.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime Japan Times contributor, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© The Japan Times, 2021.