International support appears to be the immediate way of packing a punch against the COVID-19 pandemic that is battering India.
The United States helms this aid as the world’s largest economy with the Biden administration emphasizing that the first planeloads of medical supplies and oxygen were deployed to India on April 30. A further glimmer of hope arrived today when they announced that vaccine patents would be lifted to help with the global production and supply. If this intellectual ownership is waived, it would be a major development for pandemic-ravaged countries like India and Colombia. In fact, 35% of all Coronavirus deaths in the world occurred in Latin America, reported the New York Times.
Lifting vaccine patents is still a contentious issue in the First World. The Biden administration’s support comes at a time when Big Pharma personified by figures like Bill Gates held on to patents, putting profits ahead of human welfare in the process. At an Ethnic Media Services press conference, Culturas asked Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, about what the US government can do about patent removal at a time when many Americans are choosing not to get vaccinated while third-world countries are experiencing shortages.
He did not give a direct answer.
“The United States is talking about distributing almost all of the 60 million AstraZeneca vaccines and has made more investment in Covax than any other nation in the world,” said Warner.
He stated he was unsure of the government’s stance on patents at the time of this interview, and mentioned he was “interested in looking at what a very temporary waiver might be.” Warner pointed out that though Pfizer reaped billions of dollars in vaccine production, they did not depend on money from the government in the process. “When you have this amount of government support, should there be an obligation on the company to have some ‘public good’ requirement that goes along with the intellectual property protections?”
Last week, Warner and his Senate India Caucus co-chair Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to the White House asking President Joseph Biden to ramp up aid to India. Now, a $100 million package containing oxygen, ventilators, and vaccine raw materials is scheduled to go to the country.
The support India is receiving on the global scale is immense. The disease managed to lie relatively low in the country during the first wave while it cracked open the United States to expose a severely flawed healthcare system aggravated by the government’s mishandling of the situation. But the spring of 2021 brought about a mirror effect in India. That it boasts the rank of second-most populous country in the world only complicates the situation. But the country’s sheer numbers being a hindrance to speedy mass vaccination is an unfounded claim. “During India’s first [polio] campaign in 1996, more than 87 million children were vaccinated by 100,000 volunteers over one 3-day period,” stated a 1999 Special Hearing report concerning global eradication of polio and measles.
Caught in the throes of multiple assembly elections that sparked several crowded rallies, poor social-distancing and mask-wearing practices on the individual level, and led by the Narendra Modi government that funneled more money into building lavish ministerial headquarters than healthcare, India buckled under the weight of collective irresponsibility.
After weeks of not responding to international help, India has finally started accepting fiscal aid, donations, and supplies from countries around the world though there are no reports yet of domestic flights transporting supplies from the Center to other states.
Warner specifically held the Modi administration accountable for its clamping of public speech during the COVID-19 rampage. “I am concerned that it appears that the Modi government is trying to limit journalists and Indians themselves from raising legitimate questions on social media,” he said. Warner went on: “If the government is using its tools to try to limit accurate reporting about the spread of the virus, that is very dangerous. Hiding the level of the crisis will not lead to a quicker solution.”
Other American officials also scrambled to help India. On April 26, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state would send oxygen equipment because of surplus supplies. California’s mass vaccination drive was one of the more successful American initiatives that rewarded the Golden State with the lowest infection rate in the country. “As we surpass 28 million vaccinations and continue to see the lowest positivity rates in the country, we must meet this moment with compassion by aiding those that are hardest hit by this pandemic,” said Governor Newsom in a statement outlining distribution.
Khalsa Aid International, a British-Sikh nonprofit organization, also made arrangements to provide oxygen supplies to India. The group set up a special donation channel for American contributions too. Their first batch of 200 oxygen concentrators was scheduled to reach the capital New Delhi on May 1, and more are in the pipeline.
The Biden administration’s agreement to lift vaccine patents and its supply of raw materials to India and the Third World comes hot on the heels of Serum Institute leader Adar Poonawalla leaving India amid allegations of threats against him. The Serum Institute is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer producing the AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine. But on Poonawalla’s watch, it failed to roll them out in a timely and abundant manner. Moreover, these vaccines in India are not free of cost. Pricing vaccines gave Poonawalla the tag of a profiteer, a charge he has denied.
The U.S. government’s decision to help is also an acknowledgment of the country’s ample resources, with enough to go around. It is also indicative of a thought process that recognizes global health implications if the disease is left unfettered in one region while another slowly heals. “Is there more that can be done? Yes,” said Warner. “India has reinforced the fact that COVID is not behind us. It’s going to take an international collaborative effort from governments and the private sector in a much more aggressive way than we’ve seen to date.”