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G7 focus on China a breather for Modi’s India. But questions on Covid drugs won’t go away

G7 diplomats are now echoing the Supreme Court of India — why hasn't the Modi govt granted compulsory licences to pharma companies to at least manufacture anti-Covid drugs if not vaccines.

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The spare, elemental beauty of Cornwall, which hosted the just-concluded summit of the Western world’s richest democracies, the G7, was a reminder of what the world – including India – can again be like, once you’re double vaccinated to keep Covid-19 at bay.

There were several other powerful messages from the world’s most powerful club. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited to be the lead speaker in the Open Societies session – G7 diplomats have told this reporter that there is significant concern on how NGO and political activists are being imprisoned under harsh national security laws for the mere crime of speaking out against the government, while government pushback on social media platforms like Twitter is being closely watched.

India at G7 summit

On the eve of the G7, in fact, a middle-ranking US official was seconded to tell Congress that some of Delhi’s actions, “including restrictions on freedom of expression, have raised concerns that are inconsistent with the country’s democratic values.” But the message was mild, not even a warning – fact is, India and the US are working closely together, especially in the Quad, and neither side wants to rock the boat.

With China looming large, New Delhi’s current indiscretions, including in Jammu and Kashmir, are not seen as particularly major. The G7 will also look at how its guest invitees can become forces of stability in their respective regions – for example, can India export its market friendly, democratic model to the countries of South Asia?

For the moment, the jury is out on that question, because the G7 was focused elsewhere – on China. The G7 communique devoted quite a bit of space to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and despite Italian and British reluctance, asked for a proper investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. Naturally, the US was leading the charge. “Diplomacy is back,” tweeted Joe Biden. China, predictably, denounced the G-7 statement.

It was a pity Modi wasn’t present in Cornwall, because learning from others has always been part of the PM’s growth curve. Apart from the Big 7, Modi would have rubbed shoulders with fellow developing country leaders like South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, a classic trade unionist who is popular abroad because of his easy-going personality, whose presence is proof that South Africa needs help as his country enters the “third wave” of the Covid pandemic and because China is making huge inroads there; with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, whose country is a close US ally, can give textbook lessons in how-to-avert-a-pandemic and despite being a key economic partner remains an uneasy neighbour of China; and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, whose country is a Treaty ally of the US, a member of the Quad, and at the forefront of tensions with China, with which it was once a close economic partner.

In fact, if Modi had gone to Cornwall, a meeting of the Quad could have easily taken place – the US, Japan and Australia, the other members of the Quad, were all present.

Also read: Diplomacy is hard work, but India’s American moment has arrived

India’s vaccine issue

For the moment, though, India’s Covid unpreparedness has ripped out all pretensions of it becoming an emerging global or regional power — the Modi government admits it was badly caught off-guard. India is now hoping to get a substantial chunk of the 1 billion vaccine doses promised by the G7, half of them by the US. Invoking the “One Earth, One Health mantra” at another G7 session, Modi repeated the India-South Africa proposal at the WTO and requested the gathered leaders to waive the ban on Covid vaccines and related intellectual property rights.

Except, G7 diplomats are now echoing the Indian Supreme Court’s 1 May question — why hasn’t the Modi government invoked the Patents Act to grant compulsory licences to Indian pharma companies to manufacture Covid vaccines, other drugs and attendant material?

The diplomats point out that the US Trade Representative’s April report acknowledges the right of partners, like India, to address “serious public health emergencies” to issue compulsory licences and that the Covid-19 pandemic qualifies. And even if pharma companies don’t share knowhow on Covid vaccines, they point out that it’s a perfect opportunity for Indian drug companies to make other drugs in India.

“Consistent with this view, the United States respects its trading partners’ rights to grant compulsory licenses in a manner consistent with the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement and the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health,” the report says.

In the last five years, both rich and poor nations have invoked this right. In 2016, Germany issued compulsory licensing for Raltegravir, an antiretroviral drug that treats HIV-AIDS. In 2020, Israel issued one for Lopinavir, an anti-HIV-AIDS drug it hoped would also treat Covid-19 (it didn’t really help). This year, Russia and Hungary issued compulsory licences to manufacture Remdesivir to combat Covid.

Simply put, the Doha Agreement gives member countries like India the right to compulsorily license a drug, in the greater common good, thereby enabling Indian drug companies to override patent concerns and manufacture the drug by using knowhow that exists in the public domain — for the period of the health emergency in question.

Also read: No great choices between the two ex-diplomats’ camps. Both equally incoherent

Navigating patent waiver

Some cite concerns about being taken to court by the foreign pharma company in question, like the US pharma major Gilead, the manufacturer of Remdesivir, has done with Russia. Moscow allowed a company called Pharmasyntez to produce a generic drug called Remdeform because Gilead’s Remdesivir drug, called Veklury, was costing 11,544 roubles, more than the maximum 7,400 roubles price ordained by the government.

Lawyers say Gilead stands little chance of winning its suit because the court will look at whether the essential requirement of a compulsory licence was met, which is the presence of an emergency situation in the country.

The G7 response to the India-South Africa proposal is not known so far, but at the WTO, Germany, Italy and UK are continuing to hold out, while the US has agreed to waive patents for the Covid vaccines. France, which so far has no skin in the game – Sanofi’s anti-Covid drug hasn’t hit the markets yet – has agreed to lift the patent ban on Covid vaccines.

The G7 2021 summit will surely be remembered, not just for Cornwall’s primeval beauty, but also for trying to address the Covid pandemic and censuring China. Question now is, where does India go from here?

The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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