India’s Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, has raised the issue of export hurdles for critical vaccine raw material with the Biden administration. Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla said this is a bilateral issue between the Indian and US side and has been taken up.
However, a source said that so far, there has been no assurance from the US side of any easing out, adding that it is work in progress.
The matter was taken up after the Serum Institute of India raised concerns that the invoking of the US Defence Production Act could lead to shortage of cell culture medias, single-use tubing assemblies and also some specific chemicals from the US.
At a World Bank panel discussion on March 4, CEO Adar Poonawalla publicly indicated that invoking of the Act was leading to limiting the production of their Covid-19 vaccine, Covishield.
When a question was put to US NSA Jake Sullivan on Friday, he had said, “I do not believe there is a ban”.
Technically, there is no ban — even temporary — is what the US side is indicating. However, the Defence Production Act invoked by the US President to meet targets of vaccination in America is having a fallout elsewhere, especially India’s and the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, SII.
This is because the law gives the US government more control during emergencies to direct industrial production. The Act allows for companies to accept and prioritise contracts for services and materials deemed necessary to aid US national defence. It is this prioritisation that is acting as a hurdle in swifter exports towards India as US is itself trying to meet ambitious targets for vaccinating its own population on priority.
In February, after the Act was invoked, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “… it means our work is ongoing with companies to ensure that we are expediting the manufacturing of materials to ensure that we can get 100 million shots in the arms of Americans.”
On the other hand, priced at $3 per shot, Covishield was projected as a vaccine benefitting low and middle-income countries to overcome the hardships of the pandemic. After an initial commitment of 100 million doses, a further collaboration between SII, Gavi and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was meant to accelerate the manufacturing and delivery of up to an additional 100 million more vaccines in 2021.
Though this collaboration provides upfront capital to SII to help increase its manufacturing capacity but the critical raw material crunch is hemming it in.
When contacted, the US embassy spokesperson in India said, “The Biden Administration’s top priority is saving lives and ending the pandemic. The Biden administration also recognises that Covid-19 is a global challenge that requires a global response. The President is deeply focused on the issue of expanding global vaccination, manufacturing, and delivery, which will all be critical to end the pandemic.”
Interestingly, the United States had provided an initial $2 billion contribution to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is supporting the COVAX Facility Advance Market Commitment (AMC).
Meanwhile, on the other hand, the US has come together with Quad countries to counter China’s growing vaccine diplomacy. The Quad countries are undertaking a vaccine initiative under which Hyderabad-based Biological E will be producing Johnson & Johnson, one shot Covid-19 vaccine for the Indo-Pacific with funds provided by US and Japan and last mile coverage ensured by Australia.