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India Supported US at the Peak of the Pandemic, and Now They Want to Return the Favour: Indian Envoy to US

Indian Ambassador to US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu

Indian Ambassador to US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu

In an exclusive interview with CNN-New18, Taranjit Singh Sandhu said that the US private sector including big pharma along with the Biden administration is with India.

Indian Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, expressed gratitude on behalf of the United States for the crucial help India provided when they were reeling under the perils of the pandemic and that the Joe Biden administration is committed to seeing India through the second wave of the pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with CNN-New18, Sandhu said that the US private sector including big pharma along with the Biden administration is with India and that he expects the vaccine patent issue to be soon resolved at the WTO.

Edited excerpts:

You have been at the forefront of all the engagement with the US administration. Could you please share with us what’s been happening at the backend?

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The world is of course facing an unprecedented pandemic and its course is uncertain and complex. So our focus has been to tap into the US-India partnership, to supplement the ongoing efforts of the government and people in India to confront this pandemic challenge and as you are aware the United States is the most advanced country, medically, and in terms of technology strength. And we have a strong partnership with the US, especially in healthcare, pharma, S&T, R&D etc.

This can provide valuable support to India’s effort at this time and therefore we have been engaging the US early on at various levels. For example, for the quick supply of inputs and components and requirements from medical equipment.

My team here and I, we’re in touch with the White House, National Security Council, State Department, the US Congress and private sector and as well as other key stakeholders in the US.

The prime minister spoke to President Biden on April 26. The External Affairs Minister and the NSA have been in touch with their counterparts too. External Affairs Minister and Secretary Blinken have just met on the sidelines of G7 and right up till today there are 5 flights which have arrived from United state carrying medical assistance and more are scheduled to come. This is just G2G part, who keep in mind that the private sector, the Indian community and the American people at large. There is a lot of forthcomingness for us here at this time and we will continue this engagement.

What are the key areas of support and engagement that have been identified?

Right now, the measures which have been announced by the United States are substantial and significant, and this is in terms of immediate assistance. So we are seeing that oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, rapid diagnostic tests, critical medicines like Remdesivir, are being supplied in these first five flights which have come. And as far as AstraZeneca is concerned, the manufacturing supplies to India, the United States is looking at redirecting its own order. So this will allow India to enhance its own Covid-19 vaccine production.

Now, in addition to all this, there is also a technical partnership. These are in the labs, surveillance, bioinformatics and a whole lot of infection prevention control, vaccine roll-out, communication, etc.

In fact, this afternoon, I am going to be speaking to Dr Fauci himself.

You also mentioned the conversation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden had. Could you please share some more details about that conversation? And also, what is the equation between the two leaders?

I have once earlier mentioned that President Biden has been invested with India since way back in the late 90s. When I was posted here, he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he has had a good close personal interaction with the prime minister too.

This time around, there are three phone calls that have happened between them and two additional interactions at the summit level. As you know, the Quad and subsequently the environment summit. So this time around, they focused on the Covid-19 situation in India and how the US can help in the ongoing efforts in India. The President was very clear in expressing his solidarity and support, and he very clearly underlined that the United States is standing shoulder to shoulder with India. And also he acknowledged India’s support to the United States last year when it was fairly impacted by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Modi, of course, underscored the need for a smooth and open supply of raw materials, inputs required for manufacturing of vaccines, medicines related to Covid-19 and he also took this opportunity to talk about India’s initiative at WTO on the TRIPS agreement and affordable access to vaccines and medicines for the developing world. All in all, as I mentioned to you, the India U.S. partnership in vaccine development was also discussed.

But there’s also been the outreach to the U.S. Congress, how has that helped in getting assistance. Can you tell us a little more about that?

As far as India- US relations are concerned, we have enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and this has been since the late 90s. Personally, I have interacted with more than one hundred and fifty members of the U.S. Congress, both senators as well as in the House. And in this particular crisis, there has been tremendous support across the political spectrum for India, including the fact that I got calls from governors of various US states. And the states are also trying to help out with the situation of sending out whatever critical supplies in their states they have. California is already an example.

There are some others and several lawmakers, including those of the India caucus. They have made public statements that medical supplies and assistance to our partner, India, should be immediately sent. And these include the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Gregory Meeks, the House Intelligence Committee chair, Adam Schiff, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ami Bera.

In fact, very recently, just two or three days back, 108 congressmen, including also separately, 10 senators, and these include the top senators like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, congresspersons like Karen Bass, Bowman, Bush, Ro Khanna have come out strongly supporting India and South Africa on the WTO waiver issue. And India certainly deeply values the strong expression of support and solidarity by the U.S. Congress and the congressional leaders over the years, and particularly at this time.

How has the US business community responded?

That’s another face at this time, which has been very important. The private sector in the US has been forthcoming in its support and offer of assistance. And we have engaged a number of CEOs. I’ve spoken to a number of them, Pzifer, Walmart, FedEx, Dell, Air Products, United, including the critical vaccine supply chain, which we have been talking about, the Pauls Corporation, Thermo Fisher Antler, all of them in recent weeks.

Then, of course, there is US-India strategic partnership Forum, there is US-India Business Council, there is the US Chamber of Commerce. And in the big ones, for example, Remdesivir, they have donated at least four hundred and fifty thousand doses and the first consignment has just reached India.

In addition, the United States government has sent 1.25 lakh doses of Remdesivir. The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken himself took a meeting where more than the top 40 CEOs of US companies came together under the chamber and they established what has been called the Global Task Force on Pandemic Response. And this is a public-private sector partnership specifically focused to supply India with critical medical supplies, vaccines, oxygens, whatever equipment India requires. They are coming together and supporting that. Delloite, for example, they have supplied about 12,000 oxygen concentrators. Mastercard, they are establishing a 2,000 hospital bed with portable oxygen supply, Walmart - two million dollars, Pzifer - 70 million dollars, Facebook - ten million dollars Boeing another ten million dollars. Google, Microsoft, Air Products, Amazon, Sun Microsoft, I can go on and on.

The important part is that the US industry has shown full appreciation for what’s going on in India. And we have, of course, expressed our sincere gratitude to them.

It’s also heartening to see the outpouring of support that’s come from the Indian American diaspora. Your thoughts?

The Indian American diaspora has always been very well connected with India in past also whenever crises have struck, they have been counted on in a big way, this time too, and all our 5 consulates and the embassy, are in touch with them. We are facilitating their supplies to India. There is the Indian Red Cross, also the cabinet secretary and the empowered committee is helping out.

Ministry of External Affairs is there in the forefront, whatever assistance we can provide to them so as to be able to get their support, what they want to say to India, to India itself. So they are also one part of this outreach.

One of the concern areas has been the reports which suggest that some of the big pharma have tried to bully nations, especially around vaccine supply. Has there been an attempt to do the same with India?

Now, on this, let me be again very candid. See we have an excellent relationship with many of the US Pharma majors and I’ve spoken about them in my earlier remarks. I’ve also been in touch with them. They have been very forthcoming.

I’ve given you the example of Pzifer, you know, they have provided drugs, worth 70 million to India as a donation. For example, I mentioned to you more than four hundred and fifty thousand doses of the Remdesivir and Merck, they have also provided medical supplies. So we do have a relationship with them. But as far as IPR is concerned, it’s a larger issue. You know, these are vaccines that are to be supplied to the developing world at this critical juncture, and in that India and South Africa have taken the lead and we have asked for a time-limited temporary TRIPS waiver of covid-19 vaccines and medicines at the WTO. So as this will enable the recovery of the covid-19 pandemic all over the world. And on that, we are continuing to work with the U.S. administration. As I mentioned to you, the US Congress has remarkably come out, big time supporting this, as I just mentioned, about 108 Congressmen and persons, and in addition, they are senior senators who have come out and they have written to President Biden asking that this relaxation must be given at this time, and these include the topmost congressmen and senators, and that support is very important.

There have been a lot of strategic engagements which have been arrived upon even in the court meetings, there were certain decisions that were taken. So how do you see the long-term engagement with the United States?

The long-term relationship, as has been evidenced by the way the U.S. is coming out this time, at the time of our need, that there is a genuine belief here that India is a strong partner for the future. And this partnership is anchored in shared values, mutual trust, shared strategic interests and strong good faith at the people’s level.

So we have already seen in the first hundred days of the administration, you have the Quad summit which took place, the first Quad summit in which there was substantial, free, clear, practical coming together. Then you have had Leader’s Summit on Climate Change, then Secretary Austin that his first visit was to India. Then of course we have had the special envoy of President Biden. That is John Kerry, he has visited. So our partnership and friendship have only been strengthened in this joint fight that we are having in this unprecedented pandemic.

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first published:May 06, 2021, 16:05 IST