In a world battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, public health is on top of the agenda for every nation. The new currency in town is vaccine diplomacy – providing doses to countries that have no access to the vaccine. Extending a helping hand now can win friendship and goodwill in the future and so soft power outreach is vital for nations. Hence, the race to provide vaccines is on with China leading.
China is on top of the game, even amid the Biden administration’s concerted efforts to not to let President Xi Jinping win all the laurels. The emphasis of QUAD, the US-India-Australia-Japan alliance, is on providing vaccines to Indo-Pacific nations as part of the strategy to contain China’s influence in the region.
This is why vaccine manufacturing and distribution is now an important focus of QUAD nations. India with its pharmaceutical know-how has always played an important role in providing cheap medicines to the developing world. It played a stellar role in the 1990’s to make cheap AIDS drugs accessible to countries in Africa, where an AIDS epidemic was then raging. The medicines provided by multinational pharmaceutical companies were not affordable for ordinary people in the developing world. India is often called the pharmacy of the world, as it provides 60 percent of the global vaccine supply.
In fact, India was initially ahead of China in the race to provide doses to low-income countries. Starting with the neighbourhood, New Delhi through its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ program, supplied a total of 107.15 lakh doses of vaccines to 44 countries as a grant and 357.92 lakh doses commercially to those who bought from India-based manufacturers. India shared its vaccine with 95 countries before exports were discontinued. India was winning hearts and minds as well as appreciation around the world. But since the deadly second wave of the pandemic hit the country, New Delhi had to stop its vaccine exports by the end of March and focus on providing doses to its own citizens.
China in the beginning was struggling with an image problem. With the virus originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, many across the world blamed the Communist nation for the pandemic. The country, in turn, reached out to the world by providing masks, sanitisers, test kits and teams of doctors to help combat the pandemic.
By July 2020, China’s vaccine trials were on. The first foreign country to allow trials for the Chinese product was Brazil. In December 2020, Egypt announced it would accept the Chinese-made Sinopharm to vaccinate its nationals. Pakistan, many Central Asian nations, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and many other East Asian countries are also now using Sinopharm. China has so far delivered 454 million COVID-19 vaccines to countries in Asia, with at least 326 million of those vaccines delivered to countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
The QUAD is looking to India to catch up with China. New Delhi has since ramped up its production, it has also vaccinated a large section of its population and is aiming to begin exporting doses by October. New Delhi was also under enormous pressure from the US to do so. Significantly the announcement was made ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US.
In its first virtual summit called by Joe Biden in March, the QUAD pledged to send one billion vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific nations by the end of 2022. US firms like Johnson & Johnson and Novavax would manufacture in India . Hyderabad-based company Biological E Limited has an agreement with Johnson and Johnson to produce their vaccine in India. The funding for the Covid manufacture will be done by both the US and Japan, while Australia will come in later to help in the distribution of the doses.
At the global Covid Summit, called by President Joe Biden in Washington recently, Prime Minister Modi said, “As newer Indian vaccines get developed, we are also ramping up production capacity of existing vaccines. As our production increases, we will be able to resume vaccine supply to others too. For this, the supply chains of raw materials must be kept open. With our QUAD partners, we are leveraging India’s manufacturing strengths to produce vaccines for the Indo-Pacific region.’’
India is the linchpin in quad’s efforts to compete with China’s vaccine diplomacy. Much will depend on how quickly India is able to increase its capacity and resume its vaccine initiative.