India launched its Operation “Vaccine Maitri” in January 2021 – a milestone in the history of India’s assistance to fellow developing countries. Guided by the holistic philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family), India is extending a helping hand to others with the conviction that if sickness prevails in any corner of the world, then Indians themselves remain vulnerable. In today’s interconnected world, the well-being of 1.3 billion Indians cannot be isolated from that of the remaining 6.3 billion inhabitants of the planet.
Within days of approval from India’s regulatory authorities and their foreign counterparts, the export of vaccines began in earnest. India’s domestic vaccine rollout, which is a humungous task in itself due to the vast size of its territory and population, did not in any way delay its health rescue diplomacy towards countries near and far such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, South Africa, Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.
India is known as pharmacy of the world. It is the largest producer of generic medicines, accounting for 20 percent of their global production. It is also one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world. Around 60 percent of the global requirement of DPT (Diphtheria Pertussis Tetanus), BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin, a vaccine for tuberculosis), and measles vaccines is supplied by India. Operation Vaccine Maitri will add to its credibility as a reliable vaccine producer.
On 16 January, Prime Minster Modi launched one of the world’s most ambitious vaccination programmes, aiming at inoculating 300 million (out of 1.3 billion people) by August 2021, prioritising healthcare and frontline workers (for example policemen, soldiers and municipal workers) and individuals over age 50.
In the first 10 days of the vaccination campaign, about 2 million persons were inoculated. This represents about 185,000 vaccinations a day. India will thus have to ramp up its vaccine administration to over 1.1 million a day, to reach its target of 300 million vaccinations by August 2021. Reactions from the public on the success were mixed, also because the electronic platform designed to manage the vaccination ‘CoWIN’ (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network) encountered some glitches and thus delays. Covaxin, the vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech, was approved for emergency use without phase 3 trial data, prompting criticism that the process was rushed. The Indian government’s transparency on this matter and the Indian media’s timely reporting on the roll out did eventually create more confidence in the process.
India already has agreed to supply more than one billion coronavirus vaccines to various countries and to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative aimed at poorer countries. India is currently manufacturing two vaccines — the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, known in India as Covishield, and Covaxin, developed by the Indian pharmafirm Bharat Biotech. Other Indian companies have the capacity to produce more vaccines with Hyderabad-based Biological E partnering with Johnson & Johnson and Zydus Cadila producing their own candidates. As such it is interesting to note that Indian infrastructures and industry will play a central role in ending the pandemic and respond to the global vaccine demand.
The goodwill being accumulated from India’s vaccine diplomacy is expected to yield longer-term benefits of increased bilateral and regional trust and faith, which is why New Delhi prioritised neighbouring nations to be the initial beneficiaries.
Most recipient countries will get Indian vaccines either free of cost or minimally priced at actual production cost. India will also provide training of medical personnel administrating the vaccines. Operation Vaccine Maitri will thus play an important role in enhancing the international reputation of India, especially among important regional allies. Even before the launch of the Vaccine Maitri initiative, India has been supplying hydroxychloroquine, Remdesivir and paracetamol tablets, as well as diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to a large number of countries, including the Unites States, to help them deal with the pandemic.
In the newly released budget for 2021-2022, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has allotted Rs 35,000 crore for coronavirus vaccines, with a commitment to spend more if needed. This move will encourage more manufacturers to take up vaccine production and strengthen India’s role as the pharmacy of the world. Investments in new Covid-19 vaccines will also positively impact on existing R&D platforms and infrastructures and build global preparedness to deal with future pandemics.
Stay safe and healthy!
Fanny-von-Heland, Leena Kukreja and Mini Nair