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Price of America First: How US Export Ban Hurt Covid-Scarred 'Friend' India

A boy reacts next to the body of his father, who died of COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi. (Reuters)

A boy reacts next to the body of his father, who died of COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi. (Reuters)

Critics have slammed America for hoarding vaccines and impeding the production of doses in India at a time of grave crisis. The US has now promised help.

After the United States imposed a ban on the export of Covid-19 vaccine raw material and stockpiled shots, resulting in an outcry, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday morning said that the US will rapidly deploy additional support to Indians. Critics have slammed America for hoarding vaccines and impeding the production of doses in India at a time of grave crisis.

“Our hearts go out to the Indian people in the midst of the horrific Covid-19 outbreak. We are working closely with our partners in the Indian government, and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India’s health care heroes,” Blinken tweeted.

Will this mean America would divert the extra vaccines that it has to help India, where many states and hospitals are facing a shortage? Would it lift the ban on the export of raw materials needed for vaccine production in the country, especially when the vaccines produced in India are the lifeline for many other countries as well?

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s response just two days ago didn’t give much hope. On Thursday, while replying to a question on the Indian request to lift the ban on the export of raw materials, he said, “That vaccination campaign is well underway, and we’re doing that for a couple of reasons. Number one, we have a special responsibility to the American people. Number two, the American people, this country has been hit harder than any other country around the world – more than 550,000 deaths, tens of millions of infections in this country alone.”

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True, America has been the hardest-hit country overall but the rapid surge of Covid’s second wave in India poses a serious challenge that can hardly be ignored. If we interpret the Covid database from research and data website ‘Our World in Data’, the 7-day average of cumulative cases in India right now is around 3,00,000, the highest in the world and five times that of the rolling 7-day average of around 60,000 cases in America and Brazil. These are the three hardest-hit countries right now.

When it comes to coronavirus-related fatalities, India has seen a biweekly increase of 162.45% in Covid fatalities while America has seen a decline of 22% and Brazil a decline of 6.44% as per the latest data available. According to ‘Our World in Data’, “the biweekly growth rate on any given date measures the percentage change in the number of new confirmed deaths over the last 14 days relative to the number in the previous 14 days”.

Compare this with the stand taken by India which has always followed the “humanity first" path.

There has been a great demand to ban vaccine export from the country after the current exponential Covid surge that began in March. It certainly has slowed down the pace at which India was exporting vaccines earlier, in order to meet the domestic demand, especially when inoculation is the only way out of the Covid crisis and the country is widening its base to vaccinate more and more people as the cases are rising. But India is still trying to meet the international vaccine demands.

It granted 50,000 vaccine doses to Albania on April 16. Between April 10 and 16, under the COVAX facility co-led by the World Health Organization, the country has supplied 13.628 lakh vaccines to eight countries including the latest ones to Syria on April 16.

And this is why the America first dictum looks badly pressed here.

America is naturally a culprit when it comes to the future Covid vaccine security of India in the coming months. The country has blocked the export of necessary raw materials needed in vaccine production and India’s vaccine makers, who largely depend on America, are seeing red signs in their production lines as it will reduce their production capacity.

India raised the issue with the US, requesting to lift the ban that is in place since February. Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker of the biggest supplier of the COVAX initiative, appealed to American President Joe Biden to lift this ban as the restrictions are going to seriously impede the production capacity of vaccine makers here.

But while rejecting India’s demand, the US, in fact, also tried to tell us that Americans have the first right over Covid vaccines and its domestic priorities are well above the ‘humanity’ concerns. “Not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated,” said Ned Price.

When Covid-19 is a global crisis, how can America just wash its hands off by saying that it has pledged $4 billion to the COVAX initiative when it will not allow India to produce vaccines that are needed to be delivered to the poorer countries under the programme?

When Covid-19 is a global crisis, how can America focus solely on domestic priorities when it could have followed the Indian model of trying to balance its domestic concerns with international humanitarian obligations? To ramp up vaccine production domestically, the country took the easiest way out: cut short the raw materials needed internationally.

That naturally raises the question that are vaccinations for Indians or people of other countries less important? Especially when we see that the nation is sitting on a stockpile of Covid vaccines that could help India and many other countries that desperately need it. Especially when we see that America is the largest Covid vaccine hoarding nation.

India’s current population is 133.3 crores according to an estimate by India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra) and the country is now aiming to vaccinate all of those who are above 18 years of age or 84.2 crores.

Compare that to America. According to the US Census Bureau, the American population was 33 crores in 2019. In 2010, 78.8% of the American population was over 16 years of age as per US Census Bureau estimates. Now if we project that to the 2019 population base, it comes around to 26 crores.

For that 26 crore population base, the country has ordered 120 crore vaccine doses. These 120 crore doses include 20 crore doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine that is a single-shot one. This means it can vaccinate 20 crore people alone. All other vaccines in the US are two-dose vaccines. All the doses can vaccinate 70 crore people or 44 crore more than the targeted population base in the US.

India, the country that is right now facing the most serious Covid crisis globally, is registering over five times the Covid cases daily compared to the US, and is looking at a possible vaccine shortage, at least for a month. The recent steps taken by the Government of India like allowing all foreign vaccines without conducting final stage trials only confirm this.

India has allowed Covid vaccines approved by international agencies like the World Health Organization, the US FDA, EMA, UK MHRA and PMDA Japan. The makers of these vaccines now just have to conduct a bridging trial for seven days.

So, what does humanity demand here?

Can’t America lift the ban on raw materials to speed up production in a country that is now its partner in the Quad setup: a U.S concept to create a geopolitical and economic block of democratic nations that is expected to dominate the anti-China world in future?

Can’t America divert the excess vaccine stock from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, J&J and Oxford University-AstraZeneca to India for the time being, especially when vaccines are the only protection and many Indian states and hospitals are facing a crunch.

Can’t America divert 4 crore doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine already stockpiled, as quoted by Indian-American Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi or the 30 crore doses it has ordered to India, especially when it has not yet approved the vaccine; especially when it has more than enough doses of the other three vaccines it is using: Pfizer, Moderna and J&J.

The country has ordered 80 crore doses of these vaccines that can vaccinate 50 crore people.

(Source: Population already vaccinated with at least one dose in the US – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; People fully vaccinated – Johns Hopkins University Covid database)

This especially when a research study “Reducing Global Covid Vaccine Shortages: New Research and Recommendations for US Leadership” recently said that the US is expected to have extra 30 crore doses of vaccines by July.

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