Bruised by India's vaccine diplomacy, China adopts smear tactics against New Delhi fearing loss of influence in South Asia

Notwithstanding China’s reaction, India’s health intervention through its vaccines has come as a boon to developing nations.

Sreemoy Talukdar January 26, 2021 09:23:02 IST
Bruised by India's vaccine diplomacy, China adopts smear tactics against New Delhi fearing loss of influence in South Asia

COVAXIN vaccine by Bharath Biotech.

The 72nd Republic Day marks an epochal moment for India. While the world is grappling with China’s rise and still suffering the plague that originated in Chinese shores, its Asian rival and neighbour India has emerged as the exporter of mass-produced vaccines. This is as much a pointer to India’s soft power and vitality of its private sector as its moral leadership — at a time when a mercantilist China is keen on profiteering even from vaccines and the rich nations are busy hoarding the serums for themselves.

The New Year has provided an interesting contrast. On Monday, a forked-tongue Chinese president Xi Jinping waxed eloquent at World Economic Forum’s virtual ‘Davos Agenda’ conference where he warned against a “new Cold war”, “misguided approach of antagonism and confrontation” and sang paeans in favour of “peaceful coexistence”. While Xi was presenting himself as an apostle of peace, Beijing passed a law last week that for the first time explicitly allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels — heightening tension in East China Sea and South China Sea, sent fighter jets and bomber aeroplanes capable of carrying nuclear weapons over Taiwanese airspace for two consecutive days even as its troops clashed with Indian soldiers at the Naku La in Sikkim.

All this amid a pandemic that has already claimed over 2.8 million lives, has devastated economies around the world, made millions jobless and forced a  5.2 percent contraction in global GDP in 2020 — the deepest global recession in decades. The world will take decades to emerge from COVID-19 ’s economic and health consequences.

As China goes about attempting to reshape and dominate the world, India — with its reputation as the pharmacy of the world — has stood up to the challenge, led by its phlegmatic prime minister. During a recent virtual convention, Narendra Modi said: “During this corona period, India boosted its strength and today it has not only become self-reliant but has also started exporting many of these products. India is ready to protect humanity with not one but two ‘Made in India’ Corona vaccines. Being the world's pharmacy, India has delivered essential medicines to every needy in the world in the past and is still doing it.”

These aren’t empty words. India has started the world’s biggest mass-vaccination programme at a never-seen-before scale to inoculate its own people but even as the process is under way, New Delhi already sent more than 3.2 million doses of free vaccine to neigbours including Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives with more to follow in Mauritius, Myanmar, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

This matters. While receiving 150,000 doses of Covishield vaccines just four days after India’s domestic rollout, Lotay Tshering, the prime minister of Bhutan — the first country to receive India’s serums — in a statement said: “we applaud the gesture that signifies the compassion and generosity of the Prime Minister of India.  It is of unimaginable value when precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs, as opposed to giving out only after you have enough.”

India, that has approved Serum Institute of India’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin for use, has already given or is in the process of giving a million doses of vaccine to Nepal, 2 million to Bangladesh, 100,000 to the Maldives and 150,000 to Bhutan. It also plans to give 1.5 million doses to Myanmar and 50,000 doses to Seychelles. Overall, India plans to supply 20 million doses to neighbours and then step up its supply to the rest of the world — all in a matter of weeks. A Bloomberg report says the first batch of the vials will be shipped over the next two weeks, after which New Delhi will offer the vaccines to countries in Latin America, Africa and the former Soviet republics. While some part of these consignment — mostly to the neighbourhood under the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy — will be supplied as grants, commercial deals have also been struck.

Bangladesh, for instance, wants to pay for 30 million doses, Nepal wants to buy 12 million, while India’s first commercial shipments have already landed in Brazil and Morocco and are also set to go to South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

India’s global health diplomacy is founded on its prowess as the world’s largest producer of vaccines and pharmaceuticals. It is the world’s largest producer of generic medicines, accounting for 20 percent of the total global production, and it fulfils 62 percent of the global demand for vaccines led by a booming private sector. While India’s global health intervention is based on these proven fundamentals, it still required political vision and moral clarity to identify the gap between demand and supply that this pandemic has thrown up.

While the richest nations in the world have rushed in to strike exclusive, bilateral deals with industries and manufacturers, the poor nations have been left high and dry. According to the World Health Organisation, wealthiest nations such as the United States through their ‘me first’ approach have locked deals on secretive terms, and have ended up creating a class of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered to 49 higher-income countries while one of the world’s lowest-income country, Guinea, has received just 25 doses. WHO called it a “catastrophic moral failure”.

The costlier American vaccines such as those manufactures by Pfizer and Moderna have proved beyond reach of poorer nations, who have the option of takin vaccines from Russia or China, but these serums suffer from lack of trustworthiness. In some cases, China’s mercantilist approach has made it difficult for nations to accept the vaccines.

Bangladesh, for instance, was keen to strike a deal with China for CoronaVac, a vaccine made by Chinese firm Sinovac. China, however, wanted Bangladesh to share the cost of third phase clinical trials. While Dhaka refused, the Chinese company said that Bangladesh could not be an exception to not sharing costs as Sinovac was putting the same conditions for countries in which clinical trials were conducted as a precursor to jab supplies Dhaka then turned to India and swiftly struck a deal with Pune-based Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine-maker. India stepped in and sent three million doses as grant while the commercial supply for another 30 million has already been facilitated.

Similarly, India has sent a consignment of one million doses to Nepal despite recent strain in bilateral ties. Nepal has requested more from India through the commercial deal avenue even as Chinese vaccines remain stuck at the paperwork level. Maldives, which is among the first nations to receive India’s grants under the VaccineMaitri (vaccine friendship) program, has expressed its gratitude.

India’s ability and intent on vaccine diplomacy, which unlike China’s has not been wrapped in naked geopolitical ambitions, is attracting global attention. Beyond the seven neighbours who have already received Indian vaccines, requests are pouring in from Brazil, Indonesia, Cambodia. Many of these nations had struck exclusive deals with Beijing for Chinese vaccines, but the consignments have either been delayed or there has been questions marks of the efficacy of Chinese vaccines. Sinovac’s CoronaVac, for instance, has shown only 50.5 per cent effectiveness in Brazil, just above WHO’s eligibility criterion.

Once again, India has emerged as the preferred choice for many of these nations. According to latest reports, 92 nations around the world have approached New Delhi for Indian vaccines. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of the Dominican Republic, for instance, wrote to Modi that “as we enter 2021 and persevere in our fight against COVID-19 , Dominica’s population of 72,100 is in urgent need of enough doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. I, therefore, request, with great humility and respect, that you assist us by donating the doses we need to make our population safe (optimally 70,000 first and second doses).”

Instead of being overwhelmed, India has stepped up to the challenge. It has indicated that nearly 30 vaccine candidates are being considered at different stages of development, and the country has launched the Partnerships for Accelerating Clinical Trials (PACT) programme for strengthening clinical trial capacity for COVID-19 vaccine development in neighbouring and friendly countries. The PACT training program, according to a report in Livemint, drew nearly 700 candidates from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The second series has been launched with representatives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Bahrain, Bhutan, Oman, Nepal, Vietnam, and Myanmar, according to the report.

India’s scale, intensity and promptness have caught the world in surprise. While the world has welcomed India’s gesture, with the US calling India a “true friend” for using its pharma sector to help global community, China hasn’t taken it too well. It considers India’s vaccine diplomacy a threat to its geopolitical ambitions, and fears that India’s success in delivering the shot of life to its neighbourhood may erode Beijing’s influence in South Asia.

China has launched a smear campaign against India’s vaccines and its state-controlled media has taken up the role of peddling lies. Notwithstanding China’s reaction, India’s health intervention through its vaccines, that are low cost and easily storable, have come as a boon to developing nations that have been edged out by richer countries in a hypercompetitive market. India’s traditional strengths in pharmaceuticals have combined with political and moral leadership and single-minded focus on execution to provide global solution to a global health crisis. This proves that a nation need not step on the toes of other to rise.

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