Mon | Sep 20, 2021

India extends ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to Caricom - Asian nation donates 500,000 COVID-19 doses to region

Published:Wednesday | January 27, 2021 | 4:19 AMHuntley Medley/Associate Business Editor

As developing countries grapple with the challenge of sourcing for their populations, sufficient quantities of vaccines against the dreaded COVID-19 disease, and large nations make a money play and market grab for the precious commodity, emerging economy India is donating 500,000 doses of vaccines developed in the Asian country to Jamaica and other member countries of Caricom.

This extends to the countries of Caricom, the distribution of free doses of COVID-19 vaccines to especially its neighbouring countries, which India has started since it approved two products in the global race to inoculate populations against the ravages of the coronavirus. The initiative has been dubbed in some parts of the global media as India’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’.

WATCH: India to donate COVID vaccine to Caricom countries

The announcement of the donation free of cost to the 15-member Caribbean regional grouping was made by new Indian high commissioner to Jamaica Rungsung Masakui during an interview with the Financial Gleaner on Monday, the same day that India celebrated its 72nd Republic Day commemorating the anniversary of the movement for independence from the United Kingdom, which was granted in 1947.

Masakui, who took up duties in Jamaica in November last year, said distribution of the gifted vaccines could start within weeks once the countries designated for the offer complete their approval processes for the vaccines. Two companies in the south Asian country have developed and received approval there for the production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Masakui noted that the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield product being made and distributed by the Serum Institute of India, SII, has not been licensed for export to some countries. However, the indigenous Indian pharmaceutical company, Bharat Biotech, he pointed out, has been granted approval for worldwide distribution of its Covaxin, developed in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research/National Institute of Virology.

Another six vaccine candidates are said to be at various stages of development in India. They include a single dose nasal vaccine being researched by Bharat Biotech.

India is the world’s largest producer of vaccines, estimated to account for some 60 per cent of all vaccine supplies globally. This, according to Masakui, translates to approximately 300 million doses per month.

Media reports out of Asia this week quoted SII, the biggest producer, as saying it can turn out between 60 million and 70 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine a month. Bharat Biotech company is said to be aiming to produce 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses a year, although currently, they are believed to have only 20 million doses of Covaxin available.

The Indian high commissioner said the vaccination of the Indian population is well under way drawing on a well-developed primary healthcare infrastructure that allows the programme to penetrate even small and remote villages quickly and seamlessly.

Even as the Government of India now concentrates on the inoculation of front-line health workers and prepares for the national roll-out for its nearly 1.4 billion people, approved makers of vaccines in India have started exports. Already Indian-made vaccines are being sold and donated to other Asian countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka as well as to Morocco, Brazil and South Africa.

In addition to the Indian government’s gift, the Indian vaccine-makers are said to be in dialogue with governments and pharmaceutical companies around the world, including within Caricom, seeking to forge commercial arrangements for the supply of Indian-made COVID-19 vaccines.

A BBC report earlier this week said only Covishield has been exported so far. The Indian foreign ministry was quoted as saying India will continue to supply vaccines all over the world after taking into account its domestic requirements and international demands and obligations.

Questions have been raised, particularly by the patients’ rights group, the All India Drug Action Network, about the two Indian vaccines approved so far. The concerns include the approval of Covaxin, according to Indian regulators, for “restricted use in emergency situations in public interest as an abundant precaution, in clinical trial mode, especially in the context of infection by mutant strains.” Bharat Biotech has defended the approval, saying Indian clinical trial laws allowed “accelerated” authorisation for use of drugs after the second phase of trials for “unmet medical needs of serious and life-threatening diseases in the country.” It has promised to provide efficacy data for the vaccine by February.

The questions about Covishield surround the assertion that while it is backed by phase three trial data from Brazil and United Kingdom, the manufacturer has not completed a “bridging study” of the vaccine on Indians. SII has been quoted as saying it will try to conduct the bridging trial of the vaccine in India in February.

Meanwhile, vaccine supplies are not the only medical assistance the Indian high commission in Jamaica is coordinating at this time. It has taken a lead role in organising a series of free medical camps across Jamaica as it continues the observance of India Day. Scores of Indian community doctors practising across Jamaica will provide medical care free of cost at locations in all 14 parishes on Sunday, January 31.

Masakui said the initiative, which was conceptualised by the Indian community doctors, will become an annual one. It is being supported by more than 40 Indian community doctors in Jamaica; pharmaceutical companies Indies Pharma, Bioprist Pharmaceuticals, Glenmark and Dr Reddy’s Laboratories; the Seventh-day Adventist Church; Northern Caribbean University; The All-American Institute of Medical Sciences in Black River, St Elizabeth; the Custos of St James; and the municipal corporations of Kingston & St Andrew, St James, St Elizabeth; St Catherine, Clarendon, Manchester and Portland.

huntley.medley@gleanerjm.com