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US boost for vaccine production in India aimed at neighbours too, says envoy Daniel Smith

US Chargé D'Affaires Daniel Smith says it will take time for them to ship the readymade vaccines doses of AstraZeneca and J&J to India and other countries

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New Delhi: The US said Tuesday that its plans to help India boost vaccine production will not only aim to help the country but also its neighbours in the South Asian region.

Speaking to a select group of journalists, the US Chargé D’Affaires in Delhi, Daniel Smith, said Washington is concerned about the “human catastrophe” that the second wave of Covid-19 has brought in India and is “eager to help” the country boost vaccine production as it grapples with a shortage. However, he added, the US is equally concerned about the neighbouring countries not getting their share of vaccines because New Delhi has diverted those for its own domestic needs.

“We want to do all we can to boost production because I have heard from some neighbouring countries that they are concerned that India is having to divert a lot of its existing production for its own domestic needs, which is absolutely understandable, but at the same token it means a lot of these countries are at a risk that they will not get a second round of this vaccination, so we are looking to partner with other countries …” Smith said.

He also said the US is looking at what it can do to boost production not just in India but for the “shortfall that exists as a result of India’s own dire needs for these vaccines”.

In an effort to help India tide over the current Covid crisis, the Joe Biden administration has pledged emergency support worth over $100 million for the country, including reusable oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, N95 masks, testing kits and treatment courses of remdesivir. It has also promised to supply 20 million doses of readymade vaccines to India, but this is subject to approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

After India approved two vaccines for use in January, it began a massive diplomacy initiative that saw New Delhi send lakhs of doses to other countries. While some of the transactions were commercial, other vaccine exports were grants, and yet others part of India’s commitment to Covax (the global initiative for equitable access to vaccines). This initiative helped a lot of countries get their vaccination programme off the blocks.

However, as the second wave wreaked havoc in India, the country diverted its vaccines for domestic use and temporarily suspended exports under the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative.

Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have since urged India to release commercial Covid vaccine shipments that have been paid for, and also approached the US, China and Russia for assistance. 

Also Read: Mayday, Mayday — How Modi govt led India into a perfect storm

The readymade vaccines

Smith said the US is not yet in a position to help India or its neighbouring countries with the readymade doses of vaccines — produced by AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson — that are lying unused in the country. This is because they are still being screened by the US FDA.

The plant where the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were produced is located at a place outside Baltimore, Maryland, and has had certain issues that have resulted in “cross-contamination” of these vaccines, he said.

“I know there are a number of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that were manufactured in the US, they were manufactured at a place outside Baltimore. But there are problems with this plant, to be honest with you. So far, the FDA has not certified that these vaccines are available for anyone to use, for export or not,” Smith added.

He added, “So I can’t say when that will happen or what will be done exactly as we go forward in all of these. But the US is not going to be using the AstraZeneca vaccine … So, we are eager to supply this to the world but we don’t do so before we are sure that they are safe and effective. Not that we dispute the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective but that manufacturing of this particular vaccine is safe.”

A list from Modi government  

According to Smith, the Modi government has given the US a list of raw materials and other critical items required for the manufacture of vaccines in India. 

“We have received a list from the Government of India with a lot of raw materials and other materials that are needed for the manufacture of vaccines here in India and we are working closely with them to go through this list and decide what is available, what we can provide, and how quickly we can provide that,” he said.

“This is not an easy task, there are global challenges in the global supply chain right now when it comes to precursors and raw materials that are necessary for these vaccines.”

The US, he added, is in touch with the Serum Institute of India (SII) and other vaccine-makers in the country to boost production within India.

“We are concerned with the current course of the pandemic in India not simply because of the humanitarian catastrophe but also because it has global implications. India’s role as the supplier, for not just what was envisioned for the Quad but for much of the world when it comes to vaccines, is critical,” Smith said. 

“We are watching carefully the production levels of Serum Institute of India and elsewhere, we are in close touch with the Serum Institute to try to determine what raw materials we could provide to boost production but that sure was a message across the board and not just simply with the AstraZeneca vaccine. We want to do all we can to boost the production,” he added.

He said the US is also willing to partner with American pharmaceutical firms and make investments to facilitate the manufacture of the J&J vaccine in India. American and Indian pharma companies, he added, are also holding talks separately to explore ways to ramp up Covid vaccine production. 

He said it was not for India and the US alone to ramp up production, including the supply of essential raw materials. The Europeans also have to be on board as a number of raw material suppliers are located there, he added.

Also Read: Scientific data was India’s strength in polio, leprosy fight. In Covid, it’s a silent victim

‘Not resting on proposed WTO IP waiver’ 

The Biden administration has supported India and South Africa’s proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual property restrictions on Covid vaccines, to ensure wider access. However, Washington is not yet betting big on it since it will take time for all the countries at the WTO to come to a consensus on it, Smith said.  

“This was a significant step on the part of the Biden administration to take this initiative that India and SA have put forward to waive IP restrictions to Covid-19 vaccines. But we are not waiting for that to take place, to be honest,” he added. 

Smith also said the US is ramping up efforts in partnership with India and other countries to increase production of Covid-19 vaccines and increase their availability.

“So, we are not resting on this or waiting for the WTO to take action even if we are eager for that to happen. We are going to take steps that we hope will boost vaccine production significantly,” he added.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Centre is distributing foreign Covid aid, but some states & govt hospitals are still waiting


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