US President Joe Biden on Monday pledged his support for India’s Covid-19 response through emergency assistance such as ventilators and vaccine raw materials, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the importance of ensuring “smooth and open supply chains”.
These matters figured in a phone conversation between the two leaders, a day after the US announced it would supply raw materials urgently needed for making the Covishield vaccine and oxygen generation equipment to bolster India’s efforts to counter a second wave of record-breaking Covid-19 cases.
Shortly after the conversation, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy announced a plan to share America’s stock of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines with the world. Murthy said in a tweet that 60 million doses will be shared “as they become available” but didn’t give details.
US lawmakers and experts had called on the Biden administration to do more to support India, which set a global record for the rise in infections for the fifth consecutive day on Monday, with 352,991 new cases reported since Sunday. The US has also faced criticism from some quarters for what was perceived as a lethargic response to the crisis in India.
According to a readout from the White House, Biden “pledged America’s steadfast support for the people of India who have been impacted by the recent surge in Covid-19 cases”. The US is providing a “range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials, and therapeutics”, it said.
Modi emphasised the “need to ensure smooth and open supply chains of raw materials and inputs required for manufacture of vaccines, medicines, and therapeutics”, said a statement from the Indian side.
Experts believe India will be among the countries to immediately benefit from the US plan to share its stocks of AstraZeneca vaccine, which is made under licence by the Serum Institute of India and is one of the two shots rolled out for India’s immunisation programme. The AstraZeneca shot isn’t approved for use in the US and the Biden administration had faced immense global pressure for not taking a call on sharing its stockpile.
The US will begin sharing the AstraZeneca vaccine once it clears federal safety reviews, and doses are expected to be available for export in the coming months, the White House told The Associated Press.
“Given the strong portfolio of vaccines that the US already has and that have been authorised by the FDA, and given that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorised for use in the US, we do not need to use the AstraZeneca vaccine here during the next several months,” said White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.
Zients said the process of safety reviews could be completed in the next several weeks. About 10 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine have already been produced and another 50 million doses could be available to ship in May and June.
Modi described his conversation with Biden as fruitful and tweeted: “We discussed the evolving COVID situation in both countries in detail. I thanked President Biden for the support being provided by the United States to India.”
He also tweeted that he had “underscored the importance of smooth and efficient supply chains of vaccine raw materials” at a time when the India-US health care partnership “can address the global challenge of Covid-19”.
Modi briefed Biden on India’s efforts to contain the second wave of Covid-19 infections through expedited vaccination efforts and ensuring the supply of critical medicines, therapeutics and health care equipment.
Biden said the US is “determined to support India’s efforts by quickly deploying resources such as therapeutics, ventilators and identifying sources of raw materials to be made available for the manufacture of Covishield vaccines”, the Indian statement said.
Since February, the Indian side has urged the US to ease curbs imposed on exports of vaccine raw materials after the Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act, which requires American suppliers to prioritise orders from American buyers. This was done in line with Biden’s plans to vaccinate all Americans by the end of May.
However, as Covid-19 cases spiked in India, there were growing calls in both countries for the export curbs to be eased so that Indian manufacturers could ramp up the production of vaccines.
The White House readout further said the two leaders resolved that the US and India will “stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the effort to protect our citizens”. The Indian statement said Modi mentioned India’s commitment to contain the pandemic globally through the Vaccine Maitri initiative and participation in the COVAX and the Quad vaccine initiatives.
Modi also raised with Biden India’s initiative at the WTO for relaxing norms under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to ensure quick and affordable access to vaccines and medicines for developing countries.
Meanwhile, a key American official said on Monday the US is diverting its own “pending orders” of vaccine raw materials to help India and that earlier supply bottlenecks were not the result of an export ban.
Tim Manning, the White House Covid-19 supply coordinator, explained an issue that made the Biden administration look egregiously insensitive to the crisis in India and said the Defense Production Act “doesn’t even mean a ‘de facto’ ban”.
“Now here’s what we did yesterday: we diverted our pending orders of vaccine filters to India’s vaccine manufacturing effort. This will help India make more vaccine,” Manning said.
Manning set up his argument in the context of an unprecedented demand in vaccines globally, going up from four billion a year, mainly for flu and measles, to 14 billion because of the Covid-19 epidemic, and this strained the global supply chains.