Is it Time for India to Embrace COVID Vaccines From China?
Both Chinese vaccines have got the World Health Organisation approval for emergency use.
India is suffering from an acute shortage of vaccines that shows no signs of easing. This fact is plainly evident to anyone who has tried to get vaccinated. Last month alone, we lost 4000 people a day, on average, to covid; the entire country remains in a state of traumatic shock.
The solution is as self-evident as the problem: we need more vaccines in the country now. That is the only way we can unburden our health system and save lives. Which is why it is outrageous that we continue to deny ourselves two excellent vaccines being produced in a neighbouring country, both of which are certified by the World Health Organisation and might be about the only vaccines anywhere in the world with supplies to spare, just because that neighbouring country happens to be China.
Let’s put this in context. To be sure, our vaccine crisis was precipitated by the unwillingness of western pharmaceutical companies to relinquish their patent and technology monopolies even when millions of lives were at stake, but it was also caused by the bungling, incompetence and near-total neglect of our own government.
Between January and March this year, the government placed trivially small orders with Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, makers of the only two available vaccines at the time. (It took until April for the government to make a significant financial commitment for large orders of vaccines from both companies).
Through one whole year of the pandemic, except for some support to Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, this government made no effort to support the several vaccines under development in the country. That finally changed last month.
Meanwhile, at the end of last year, two Chinese companies were actively testing their vaccines across the world. On 14 December, 2020, the United Arab Emirates approved Sinopharm’s Beijing vaccine after an extensive in-country trial. On 13 January, 2021, Turkey approved Sinovac’s Coronavac vaccine, followed by Brazil a few days later on 17 January, both on the basis of independent trials conducted in each country.
Between them, these three countries have dispensed hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccines, saving millions of lives in the process. That could have been us. Had our own government not fallen asleep at the wheel, we too could have got these vaccines at the same time as they went to the UAE, Brazil, Turkey, and dozens of other countries, from Asia to Latin America and West Asia.
That was then. Now, the Indian government is desperate to bring new vaccines into India, as is clear from the extraordinary indemnity waivers it is apparently willing to provide companies like Pfizer and Moderna. And the number of local firms engaged in producing Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine which our government recently authorised, shows that we are not averse to non-western technology.
The aversion to Chinese vaccines then, could only stem from the fact that in May last year, we locked horns with China over the control of a remote Himalayan lake along our shared border.
The dispute quickly escalated, resulting in economic sanctions and a mandated boycott of Chinese companies. Nearly a hundred soldiers on each side were killed or wounded in this tragic and unnecessary face-off. The two irresponsible countries whose fault it was should have been more concerned about surviving the pandemic than engaging in this ridiculous territorial spat. Nevertheless, in response to what the Indian government considers a major threat, it set about spending 5000 crores on new Russian military aircraft and 780 crores on new American guns.
To recap: we are in the middle of the worst public health crisis the country has faced in over a hundred years, but we won’t talk to China because we are fighting them over a lake that even most known forms of aquatic life have rejected, and will therefore ignore their life-saving vaccines and, instead, focus on the stuff that truly improves the lives of our people like buying bigger guns and banning Tik-Tok.
A word, too, on an inexplicable phenomenon known as the “Quad” which India is a member of, along with the United States, Japan and Australia. The Quad bills itself as a club of cool countries with shared values, which is to say it’s a collection of random places united only by a mutual antagonism towards China. Our External Affairs Minister sees the Quad as something of a saviour, and wants it to send more western vaccines our way. The response so far has mainly been crickets. To be fair, the Quad did promise a billion vaccine doses for Asia, to counter Beijing’s “widening vaccine diplomacy,” whatever that means. These doses, which will be made in India, are scheduled to arrive at the end of 2022, or in about 18 months from now, and are surely going to be useful to whatever fraction of the Asian population succeeds in surviving until then.
Last month, the WHO approved Sinopharm’s Beijing vaccine for emergency use, in the process giving it a coveted international certificate of quality, safety and efficacy. Two days ago, the WHO announced a similar approval for Sinovac’s Coronavac vaccine. Coincidentally, the Drugs Controller General of India just announced new rules for the import of covid vaccines as well, under which any vaccine approved by the WHO will be allowed into the country without further trials or evaluation. (The earlier modification of the rules limited this allowance to foreign vaccines that had been approved by the US, UK, the EU or Japan).
There is now absolutely nothing that should stop Indian companies, hospitals, and other organisations, or state governments and even branches of the central government, from bringing in large quantities of the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.
There is little we can do about the fact that geopolitics has a place in the world. But we must do everything possible to ensure it has no place in a pandemic.
(Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the accessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa.)
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