Now that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been sworn in, India and the United States can reboot their relationship with a new focus — vaccine partnership. The new administration in the White House brings a wide array of opportunities for the two countries to cooperate and collaborate, and the manufacture and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is a significant one.
With sufficient scientific rigour, trust, and political will, the combined vaccine capabilities of the US and India have the potential to be a big boon to global health, while also demonstrating the strategic benefit of a strong bilateral partnership and providing some much-needed boost to the global stature of both countries.
Biden’s priorities: Undoing past mistakes, looking ahead
The United States’ many failures in dealing with the Covid pandemic are well-documented. Now, on the domestic front, the Biden administration faces the herculean task of distributing vaccines, through an unwieldy system, to a skeptical population. Yet, its approach – of necessity and design – includes a global vision.
There are three, interrelated reasons for this. First, the Biden team recognises that the only real solution to a global pandemic is a global response. A highly contagious, airborne virus cannot be contained through vaccine nationalism. An effective and sustained solution must include efforts to immunise large sections of the world’s population.
Yet, we are confronted with a situation where wealthy countries are stockpiling vaccines, while least developed countries are struggling to access them. This is an all-too-familiar tale of global health inequities, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has called a “moral disaster”. It is imperative, then, that steps be taken to ensure that people around the world – and not just the wealthy – get access to Covid-prevention measures.
China has already offered vaccines, at low cost, to developing countries. However, China offers little transparency on its research and development process, leaving questions about the safety and efficacy of its vaccines. Moreover, the scope of the pandemic means that no country can, on its own, fill the world’s need for effective vaccines. Much remains to be done in this area – and the US, despite its setbacks, is well positioned to take an important role in global Covid vaccination measures.
Second, it is no secret that the US’ reputation on the world stage has reached a historic low. A key task for President Biden’s foreign policy team will be, therefore, to rebuild the US’ image as a country that is willing and able to partner with others to build a strong global order. Working with India to distribute vaccines to least developed countries would be a powerful way for the US to signal its commitment to multilateralism and global scientific cooperation.
Third, the US has extensive and unparalleled resources and expertise in global health responses, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Agency for International Development, as well as charitable organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Harnessing its extensive resources to support a global response to the vaccine drive is the simple responsibility of a global power. Even with the missteps and mistakes of the past year, the Biden team understands that the US is still one of only a few countries with the capacity and resources to lead a global vaccination effort. One of the others is India.
Recognising the imperatives, the Biden administration plans to quickly revitalise the Global Health Security Agenda, which had been launched by the Barack Obama administration during the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014. This agenda called for greater global coordination to deal with public health outbreaks. The challenge was, and is, finding the global political will to harness medical technology and talent for effective solutions.
This is where the US-India partnership can be invaluable. India’s domestic vaccine manufacturing and distribution capacity is virtually unparalleled in the developing world. This, combined with its experience in large immunisation drives, makes it uniquely and advantageously positioned to lead global efforts in tackling Covid-19.
But, a lack of data transparency and incomplete critical trials have raised serious concerns about one of the two vaccines that India has rolled out. This threatens to derail the global goodwill and impact that India could otherwise build up by harnessing its existing capabilities. India should take urgent steps to demonstrate its commitment to transparent, scientific rigour: a failure to do so will neutralise its existing strengths and the trust it has built up in the developing world.
Fortunately, existing platforms for US-India cooperation, both through the public and private sectors, can help India develop and manufacture effective and safe vaccines for global distribution. Active interaction and collaboration between American agencies like the CDC and Indian counterparts such as the National Centre for Disease Control, can help replicate in India the rapid, yet rigorous, process by which effective Covid vaccines have been approved in the US.
Even before Covid, the US and India have a rich history of cooperating on global health issues. As far back as 2000, the two countries have collaborated on improving health care, combating infectious diseases, and addressing other threats to public health in both countries and abroad. Perhaps the most effective public health partnership between the two countries has been joint efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, another infectious disease scourge. Working together, India and the US have been able to identify and provide services to far more patients than either country could on its own. This experience serves as a positive harbinger for more collaboration in the future.
An opportunity for a reset
This is a difficult time for the US and for India. President Biden will have to focus much of his attention on addressing domestic problems, including the devastating effects of pandemic and sharp political divides. India, too, has to confront a weak economy and eroding democratic norms, which have affected its ability to be seen as a global leader.
Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the world needs leaders who are willing to boost global cooperation. Biden’s health plan has called for the creation of a Global Health Emergency Board, which will work on offsetting the costs of bringing vaccines to low-income countries, while also ensuring transparency and communication.
With sufficient political will, India can be a strong voice and partner in this effort. Previous global health efforts have built institutional trust between the two countries and can provide a sophisticated roadmap for future collaboration. India and the US are uniquely positioned to be able to work, together, to deliver much-needed relief not only to their own populations, but to the world beyond.
Bidisha Biswas is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. She previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Her twitter handle is @Bee_the_Wonk.
Anish Goel is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at New America. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia. He is currently an employee of the US Department of Defense.
The views expressed here are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the US government.