How Biden admin changed stance on supply of vaccine raw materials to India
US President Joe Biden on Monday took to Twitter to say that his administration is determined for India to tide over the crisis of coronavirus as the country has been witnessing more than 300,000 daily cases of infection for the fifth straight day. His administration has assured India to supply raw materials required by Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) to ramp up the production of Covishield vaccines.
“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” Biden posted from the official Twitter handle of the POTUS.
Earlier curbs on export of raw materials
The United States had in February invoked the Defense Production Act, which gives the power to control the distribution of products, to curb the export of raw materials critical for vaccine production.
External affairs minister S Jaishankar raised the matter with secretary of state Antony Blinken when they spoke on April 19; the same was also taken up in Washington by Indian envoy Taranjit Singh Sandhu.
However, the US defended the curbs saying the Biden Administration’s priority is to meet the vaccine requirements of the American people.
At that time, US state department spokesperson Ned Price had pointed to arrangements between the US and the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad on vaccine production, including increasing production capacity in India, but did not say whether or when the US would ease curbs on export of vaccine raw materials.
Why did the US block the export?
In November last year, American pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. cut short its vaccine production target by half, citing a shortage of raw material. Pfizer, which is producing mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, had earlier planned to roll out over 1.2 billion shots in 2021 but reduced the target by half due to raw material shortage in the United States and Europe.
The revised target was a major hindrance to Biden’s poll promise of administering 100 million vaccination shots in his first 100 days in office. The US government has purchased 600 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from both Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., which will be delivered in regular increments through the end of July 2021. In order to accelerate vaccine production, the Biden administration decided to invoke the Defense Production Act for the short term.
Appeal by India to lift the ban
The matter was taken up by Indian Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu soon after the Defense Production Act was invoked by President Joe Biden in February. External affairs minister S Jaishankar raised it with secretary of state Antony Blinken when they spoke last week.
Hindustan Times reported that the US side has promised to “give the matter due consideration” and to work with India to “find appropriate solutions”, according to the people cited above.
Earlier this month, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla had urged US President Joe Biden to lift the export ban on raw materials required for the production of vaccines against the coronavirus disease.
Change of stance by Biden Administration
President Biden’s post on the microblogging platform comes close on the heels of India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval's telephonic conversation with his US counterpart Jake Sullivan on Sunday.
“The United States has identified sources of specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine that will immediately be made available for India,” said a statement issued by NSC spokesperson Emily Horne on Sullivan’s conversation with Doval.
The statement also said the US is working “around the clock to deploy available resources and supplies”.
A statement by the White House on the conversation between Doval and Sullivan further read, “To help treat Covid-19 patients and protect front-line health workers in India, the United States has identified supplies of therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that will immediately be made available for India. The United States also is pursuing options to provide oxygen generation and related supplies on an urgent basis.”
Fund to boost vaccine production
The US also said the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is funding a substantial expansion of manufacturing capability for BioE, the vaccine manufacturer in India, enabling BioE to ramp up to produce at least 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2022.
“Additionally, the United States is deploying an expert team of public health advisors from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and USAID to work in close collaboration with the US Embassy, India’s health ministries, and India’s Epidemic Intelligence Service staff,” it said.
The USAID and the CDC will also “fast-track the mobilisation of emergency resources available to India through the Global Fund”.
Voices of solidarity for India
The US Vice-President also took to Twitter to reaffirm her country’s support for India to fight the pandemic and lauded the healthcare workers.
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi called the Biden Administration's commitment to export raw materials needed for life-saving vaccines to India as an “essential first step”.
Last week, the Indian-American Congressman called on President Biden's administration to release doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries currently experiencing massive and deadly surges in the spread of Covid-19, including India.
"We are currently sitting on close to 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the US stockpile, a stockpile which we're not using and which we've already opened to combat Covid19 in Mexico and Canada," Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.
India gets global support
Medical support to India from countries like the US, France, UAE, Denmark, Singapore Israel and some EU nations has started to come in as New Delhi stood firm with the democratic world in supply of much needed drugs and vaccines.
On Monday, 318 oxygen concentrators were dispatched from New York to India on a special Air India flight to New Delhi.
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Indian Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu thanked both US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Sullivan for their prompt response. "Thank you Sullivan for your reach out and support. We will fight the global pandemic through our collective action!" he said in a tweet.
He also praised US deputy secretary of state Wendy R Sherman for standing by the India.
More than 141 million vaccine doses have been administered, including 995,288 in the previous 24 hours, according to the Union ministry of health and family welfare dashboard on Monday morning. Two vaccines that are being used currently include Oxford University-AstraZeneca shot, manufactured in India as Covishield by Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech's Covaxin, the country's only indigenous vaccine against the disease. A third shot, Russia's Sputnik V, was given emergency use authorisation earlier this month.
India on Sunday reported 352,991 new cases of coronavirus infection and 2,812 fatalities, taking the active cases for the first time above the 17-million mark.