Covid-19 vaccine: India’s key role in ending the pandemic | Analysis
Indian manufacturers recently pledged to make hundreds of millions of Covid-19 doses available for low- and middle-income nations in 2021 as part of an expanded distribution effort that again demonstrated Indian’s global leadership.Updated: Oct 07, 2020, 18:17 IST
At the turn of the century, the new infections of HIV/AIDS were on the decline in high-income countries, primarily because of the rollout of highly effective anti-retrovirals (ARVs). However, in sub-Saharan Africa, the virus continued to ravage the population. Of the 34 million global cases, more than two thirds of all infections were in that region and many of those infected were young people or children who could not afford the high costs of treatment. In 2000, less than one per cent of people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries had access to treatment.
That same year, activists, experts and leaders from Indian generic-producing pharmaceutical groups came together and agreed to produce lifesaving ARVs at a fraction of the cost (less than a dollar a day for the triple therapy) and distribute them across low- and middle-income countries.
Those efforts paid off with tens of millions of lives being saved as treatment rates increased exponentially. It also provided a blueprint for how new health technologies, including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines can be effectively scaled up and priced so that they’re accessible to those that need them most. Now,after Covid-19 has taken its millionth life, India once again has the opportunity to take the lead in tackling a pandemic by acting in solidarity and utilising its world-leading industries for the benefit of all.
And the good news from the United Nations General Assembly is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed to the global fight against Covid-19: “As the largest vaccine producing country of the world, I want to give one more assurance to the global community today. India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis.” Furthermore, Indian manufacturers recently pledged to make hundreds of millions of Covid-19 doses available for low- and middle-income nations in 2021 as part of an expanded distribution effort that again demonstrated Indian’s global leadership.
Covid-19 has hit India hard in recent months, but there are promising signs that the epidemiological curve is starting to flatten. Key to controlling the outbreak has been the ability to scale up testing, enabling health officials to treat those who are sick and trace their contacts to break the chains of transmission. This is not the first time our country has tackled an infectious disease, which many said would be impossible to wipe out. It has now been nine years since India saw its last case of polio, and it was a combination of government leadership, millions of health workers trained to identify and isolate cases, continuous innovation in the delivery systems – including new ways to record child vaccination and electronic registries – and a safe and effective vaccine that led to its elimination.
An effective vaccine is unsurprisingly a major focus of the world’s current response to Covid-19. Laboratories across the world are working around the clock to design and deliver an effective inoculation in record time, with some products already in phase three trials, which is the final stage of testing whether a vaccine is safe and effective for widespread rollout.
In this regard, India has been on the forefront of bringing the world together. Along with now 167 countries, it has joined the COVAX Facility, which has the biggest and most diverse Covid-19 vaccine portfolio in the world. The facility set up by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is designed to ensure that as new vaccines are discovered, they are shared effectively around the world. This ensures that those who are most at risk – including health care workers and the vulnerable – are protected first.
To do this, WHO has designed an allocation framework that means all countries involved in COVAX will receive a supply of its approved safe and effective vaccines. This isn’t just the morally right choice; it’s also the smart economic choice because by sharing a limited supply of vaccines equitably, countries can vaccinate high-risk populations. Rejecting vaccine nationalism and coordinating across borders will ultimately save many more lives, help to stabilise health systems across the world and ensure a truly global economic recovery.
COVAX has outlined an ambitious goal to scale up vaccine production so that two billion doses are available by the end of 2021. Long considered the pharmacy capital of the world, India, which already supplies large amounts of medicines and vaccines to global health programmes such as PEPFAR, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis and Gavi, will have a key role in achieving that wide-scale roll out of a Covid-19 vaccine.
India was at the forefront of the AIDS crisis and continues to be a major force in driving research and development on Covid-19, vaccine preventable diseases like rotavirus and neglected tropical disease. By joining the COVAX Facility, we have once again sent out a powerful message to countries across the world that India is committed to working across borders to fight disease and improve health for all.
Our nation is home to some of the brightest minds in health, medicine, and logistics, and it is right that we should share that expertise with others to ensure that, as a global community, we are more the sum of ours parts in our response to Covid-19.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan is Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization
The views expressed are personal