Skirmishes on global vaccine battlefield The Statesman 19 Jan 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Skirmishes on global vaccine battlefield 19 Jan 2021

          As COVID 19 rampaged the globe, nationalism rose to the fore. Countries transited in reverse from globalization to isolationism. Nations closed their borders, blocked movement of people, equipment and medicines. Pharmaceutical industries were employed to first serve domestic sectors prior to being utilized to boost diplomatic and economic gains. The provision of medical support, including equipment, medicines and medical staff, to weaker nations enhanced a nation’s global image. India supported over a hundred countries with medicines and medical equipment. It also deployed medical teams to boost capabilities in friendly nations.

Similar is the case with vaccines as research establishments across the globe rush to develop an antidote to the Chinese released COVID 19. There were reports of attempts of hacking medical data, mainly by Chinese companies. The speed in development was based on the logic that the countries which produce the earliest vaccines would gain an upper hand in the global health market. In addition, the cheaper the vaccine and larger the production capacity available in a country, the greater would be the country’s global standing as it would assist others in need. Vaccine war became the latest frontier.

Currently, there are a few vaccines being administered globally. These include the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca from Sweden, Moderna by the US, Pfizer BioNTech, a US-German collaboration, Sputnik V from Russia, Coronavac from China and Covaxin from India. Multiple vaccines including a few from India are likely to be introduced as soon as they complete ongoing trials.

India is currently manufacturing Covishield at its Pune-based Serum Institute. As per the agreement, India will manufacture 100 crore doses of this vaccine at its Pune plant. The institutes manufacturing capacity is being increased to 250 crore doses by the end of this year. According to a BBC report, India currently makes about 60 percent of all global vaccines.

The world is seeking vaccines in large numbers. Hence, cost would be another essential factor. The Moderna vaccine is expected to cost around USD 30, Oxford UniAstraZeneca around USD 4 and the Sputnik V around USD 10. The cost of the Chinese vaccine is currently unknown, though within China, the cost of administering and vaccine is approximately USD 60. The Indian vaccine is being provided to the government at under Rs 300 and is ultimately expected to cost Rs 1000 in the market, which will be far lower than any other. In both, cost and quality, the Indian vaccine would override others.

China had expected large demands for its vaccine. It had conducted trials in multiple countries hoping to enhance demand by creating an environment of trust and installing a vaccine supply chain. A study by Brazil, which had initially considered the Chinese vaccine, stated that it was 78% effective in their clinical trials, but this month revised that figure to 50.4% after including more data in their calculations.

Simultaneously, the UAE gave it a positivity rate of 86%. Sinovac, the producer of the Chinese Coronavac, has itself announced its effectiveness at 79%, lower than most other global vaccines. The other factor impacting procurement of vaccines is conditions of storage and transportation. Only Moderna has major restrictions, while others can be stored in normal refrigerated conditions.  

Brazil has cancelled its demand for Chinese vaccines and placed the same on Indian manufacturers. The Brazilian president wrote to the Indian PM requesting for 2 million doses. With the Brazilian study public, demands for Chinese vaccines dropped globally. Even countries like Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, where China sought to push its vaccines and had conducted trials have backed down and are currently demanding Indian vaccines.

India had earlier displayed its willingness to support economically weaker nations during the pandemic by providing medicines and medical equipment. It was Modi who had proposed and created an emergency COVID 19 fund for SAARC through which India supported the neighbourhood. Of course, like every other country, assistance to other nations would flow alongside catering for domestic demand.  

Nations turning away Chinese vaccines has hurt its global standing, reputation and prestige. China has considered as a loss in the supposed ongoing vaccine war. An article in the Global Times of 06 Jan stated, ‘India hopes to counter the international influence of Chinese vaccines, even if China has always set its own pace and has no intention of competing.’ It added, ‘India’s export of vaccines to developing countries, especially to its neighbours, is aimed at boosting India’s image.’ 

China also attempted to justify reduced demands of its vaccine by stating, ‘But it does not mean these countries disfavour vaccines developed by China or other countries, as it is common practice to import vaccines from different countries to support their own immunization programs.’ Post the Ladakh standoff, China has considered India as a competitor in every field.

A report in the BBC of last week stated, ‘Analysts point to China’s bid to win the vaccine diplomacy race, which has also reportedly seen China’s President Xi Jinping pledge to set aside $2bn for the African continent, while also offering Latin American and Caribbean countries a $1bn loan to buy vaccines. It’s unclear what the terms of such a deal might be.’ It quoted Jacob Mardell who stated, ‘Beijing… will surely leverage the provision of this life-saving technology for commercial and diplomatic profit.’

This is the difference between India and China. While India would assist on humanitarian grounds, China would seek to exploit their own released pandemic for financial gains. This was the Chinese approach as the pandemic spread globally. It is likely to be the same even now.

The major benefit for India has been its successful COVID vaccination drive which commenced across the nation on the 16th. This drive assured nations, mainly third world countries, that the Indian vaccine is safe, easy to transport, administer and within financial constraints. These nations are also aware that in case approached, India would assist countries to establish the needed chain to ensure safe inoculation. There is no doubt that India has won the vaccine war over China.