President Joe Biden has convened a virtual COVID summit on September 22 on the margins of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Clearly, Biden wishes to assume leadership of global efforts to control the pandemic. To ward off continuing criticism that America has not done enough for less developed countries, Biden is expected to announce the supply of 500 million vaccines doses to the poorer parts of the world. Such a commitment will provide him with an opportunity to press countries with large vaccine manufacturing facilities, such as India, to resume exports.
This is apparent from the announced objectives of the summit. Its aim is to ask “participants to commit to a higher level of ambition across four themes”. The first theme is to “vaccinate the world by enhancing equitable access to vaccines and getting shots in arms”. And the fourth theme is “calling the world to account by aligning around targets, tracking progress, and supporting one another in fulfilling our commitments”.
National Interest vs Foreign Commitments
The World Health Organization (WHO) is in sync with the Biden administration’s desire that countries like India allow COVID-19 vaccine exports. On September 17, on the eve of the new UNGA session, the WHO reminded world leaders that “vaccines are the most critical tool to end the pandemic and save lives and livelihoods”. It also called upon countries to fulfil their dose-sharing pledges immediately and asked manufacturers to prioritise supplies to COVAX nations and partners.
Advocacy and dialogue have a legitimate place in diplomacy, but the “fourth theme” proposed by America may amount to an intrusive process that may seek to influence national decisions on the export of COVID-19 vaccines. This would be especially so if prior commitments to supply vaccines to foreign countries had been made by companies or countries. In India’s case, the Serum Institute of India (SII) had entered into commercial contacts to supply vaccines abroad and the government had commitments under the GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation) alliance.
However, under international law and practice, all foreign commitments are subject to national laws and the ‘supreme national interest’ doctrine.
It is inconceivable that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be invited to the virtual COVID-19 summit. If his travel plans make it impossible for him to attend the summit, India will certainly be represented at a senior level. However, Modi’s travel planners are likely to make attempts to enable him to participate in the summit.
America’s ‘Gentle’ Pressure
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the US have been in dialogue with India regarding vaccine exports. The former has made this publicly known. It has urged India to begin exports so that the shortfall in COVAX numbers is met and the vaccination drive moves ahead in low-income countries.
At a press conference on the COVID-19 situation in Africa, at WHO headquarters in Geneva on September 14, Seth Berkley, the CEO of GAVI, responded thus to a query on the resumption of Indian COVID-19 vaccine exports: “India has a very important role to play in the global vaccination efforts. They have the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. It was one of the reasons we went to them early to try to make sure they would take up tech transfer and scale up their manufacturing”.
What Berkley has overlooked is India’s own requirement. This was not the position taken by the African Union Special Representative, Strive Masiyiwa, who, at the press conference, acknowledged the massive and devastating second COVID-19 wave of early summer this year and the resulting need to quickly vaccinate the Indian population. However, he, too, hoped that as the wave has abated, India would be able to resume exports soon.
Obviously, leaked media reports indicate that America, too, is pressing India to begin exports, though its officials state that their pressure is gentle. India cannot and should not take cognisance of American interventions on COVID-19 vaccine exports even if Americans sent raw materials for their manufacture.
The fact is that America and European countries first looked after their own populations and only then thought of others. They are hardly in a position to lecture India to meet its export obligations.
Certainly, no responsible government can allow exports of vaccines at the cost of the health and lives of its own citizens.
The Irony of America's ‘Booster’ Doses
America is being further exposed because it is now going to permit that booster doses be given to at least its vulnerable population, when those in low-income countries have not received even one dose of any vaccine. The Washington Post reported that eight American senators recently wrote to Biden, “So far, 5.82 billion doses have been administered globally but less than 2% of the population living in low-income countries received even one dose.”
India is a developing country and it is a tribute to the progress that it has made that it has a large vaccine manufacturing capacity, and is, therefore, able to take care of its own huge population.
While India does not have to be shy to give priority to its own needs, especially after the second wave, it should seek to assure developing countries that it will not go down the path of hoarding vaccines as has been done by affluent countries.
It must also inform them that it will allow exports as soon as possible, subject to its own needs. It should underline that India is committed to vaccine equity, too, but that does not imply that it would not take a hard and realistic look at its own needs.
There is merit in the view that unless a large section of the world population is vaccinated, the virus would keep circulating, increasing the chance of the emergence of variants. That increases the chance of having a mutant that is immune to vaccines. But as the Indian population is over 16% of the world population, its vaccination also makes the entire world safer, even from variants.
All in all, after previous mistakes, the Modi government is now doing well on the vaccination front and has to resist all pressures to change course until the Indian population is effectively covered.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)