The issue of US medical assistance to India came to a dramatic end with everyone from President Biden downward issuing statements pledging immediate help to India which has been more than overwhelmed by a severe second COVID-19 wave. The US President and Vice President Kamala Harris’s responses came through tweets on Sunday, 25 April, promising additional support and supplies to deal with India’s national emergency.
There should be no doubt that this was the handiwork of President Biden himself and a decision taken on national security grounds, based on US interests in maintaining close ties with India.
Why President Biden Came Into the Picture
The US policy till last Thursday, enunciated by the State Department spokesman Ned Price, was that no help could be expected at this time because “The United States first and foremost is engaged in an ambitious and effective… effort to vaccinate the American people.” American officials had at the time said that the US would “give the matter (of assistance to India) due consideration”.
Indeed, Price had gone on to say that it was not only in the interest of the American people that this happen, but also in the interest of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.
The reason why the President came into the picture was because he is needed to waive the US Defense Production Act (DPA) which he himself invoked in February 2021. This prioritises American supplies of raw materials for vaccines for US buyers. Under the Defense Priorities and Allocation System Program of the DPA, there are restrictions on 35 categories of items which are needed by Indian manufacturers of the COVID-19 vaccine. These include reagents, plastic tubing material, nano-filters, bioreactor bags that were identified by the Serum Institute of India (SII) for use in making the Covishield and Novavax vaccines.
The backlash in India and among Indian-American politicians in the US forced the US to reconsider. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan took up the task of untangling the issue that had been roiling Indo-US relations for the past month or so.
At the end of the day, the decision was taken on strategic grounds as well as humanitarian concerns.
The Aid US Will Provide to India in its COVID Fight
The operational details of the US decision were provided by National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne who said that the US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, had spoken to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval earlier on Sunday, 25 April, and the US was working “around the clock” to help India. The US had, first and foremost, identified the sources of specific raw materials urgently needed for the Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine, and these “will be immediately be made available for India.”
In addition, the US also announced that it would provide supplies of therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to treat COVID patients and help protect front-line health workers.
The NSC statement also noted that the US Development Finance Corporation(DFC) is also funding an expansion of the manufacturing capability of Bio E company, whose COVID vaccine developed with Baylor College of Medicine in Texas has just got the go-ahead for Phase III trials.
With the US’s help, BioE will be able to produce at least 1 billion doses of its vaccine by the end of 2022. In a move reminiscent of the days it assisted India’s public health programmes in the 1950s and 1960s, the USAID will work with public health advisers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to expedite the mobilisation of emergency resources for India through the Global Fund.
There have been calls by Indian American Congressman Ro Khanna to do more, such as give India the American stockpile of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine. As part of its strategy to combat the virus, the US has contracted for and stockpiled different vaccines. As of now, Covishield has not yet got approval in the US and so its stockpiles are idle. In the meantime, the US has enough stocks of other vaccines like the ones made by Moderna and Pfizer to vaccinate all its people.
Lessons for India
There are lessons India needs to learn from this episode. First, on the importance of being clear-headed about your goals. After its initial fumbles, the US clearly planned the path ahead beginning April 2020. It systematically funded as many as 7 vaccine programmes under its Operation Warp Speed and put up USD 8 billion or so on programmes which were taking different routes to make a vaccine. This was a deliberate move to promote redundancy and ensure that the Americans would get a vaccine in no time.
Experts have said that the speed with which a COVID vaccine has emerged is a wonder of modern science, since it usually takes years to get a vaccine working.
Contrast this with India’s dependence on the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, which fortunately for us, was to be manufactured by Serum India Ltd. The second Covaxin made by Bharat Biotech has announced its interim trial results last week and these of course, remain yet to be officially certified.
Had any or both of these projects failed, India would have been left high and dry and scrambling to import the vaccines from the Chinese or the Russians, since the Americans have been restrictive about exporting not just their vaccines, but the raw material that goes into making them.
It may be recalled that the first Quad summit on 12 March involving the leaders of US, India, Japan and Australia had announced a major partnership to boost the production of COVID vaccines. The plan is to produce upto 1 billion doses by 2022 and it envisages India being helped to ramp up its vaccine manufacturing capacity, with financing from the US and Japan, with Australia being involved in logistical issues.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)