The world now agrees that the only solution to the Covid-19 pandemic is to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. New Delhi has joined the consensus, thanks to a brutal second wave of Covid-19. Equally belatedly, India realized there was a race between countries seeking to dominate vaccines. A major step in India’s new vaxpolitik has been to place the jabs at the heart of an improved British relationship and in its current interactions with the United States (US).
The world has so far produced two billion doses of the vaccine, but needs 11 billion more by the end of the year – with several billion boosters likely needed each year thereafter. The countries at the top of this process will benefit enormously, from goodwill to profits to know-how.
India, long the world’s largest vaccine maker, could lose its crown of blows. It excels at mass manufacturing, but lags behind when it comes to innovation. The country’s workhorse, the Covid-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, uses a British formula. Worse yet, there is no Indian vaccine using mRNA technology, although there is one in the works, and that is the future of vax tech. With the world’s largest child population, vaccines essential for its pharmaceutical industry and for national security reasons, India must work hard to ensure its vaccine throne is not usurped.
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To stay ahead of the pack, India must create its own pack. This means international partners for finance, technology and markets. The Astra Zeneca-Serum Institute-Oxford University triad is seen as exemplary, leading to inexpensive vaccines, zero patent issues and export opportunities. The UK pharmaceutical industry is steeped in a not-for-profit culture. All of this provides a model for a future bilateral partnership in vaccines, diagnostics and more. In contrast, while US inputs are critical to vaccine production in India, New Delhi’s experience with large US pharmaceutical companies has been deadly – Pfizer and Merck were at the forefront of pharmaceutical rights battles. intellectual property rights (IPRs) between India and the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is still failing.
The heart of the new India-United Kingdom (UK) relationship is medicinal. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar highlighted the “action plan on health and life sciences, which includes cooperation on vaccines, therapies and diagnostics”. The bilateral roadmap sets the ambitious goal of “helping to ensure a fair global supply [of Covid vaccine] by April 2022. ”Equally important is the long-term plan to harmonize medical standards, institutions and people.
Britain was a conscious choice. Its medical researchers are second in quality citations using the H index, second in Nobels medicine, and its universities are among the best in Europe. And London is ready. Prime Minister Boris Johnson often cites the success of Astra Zeneca, but also needs partners to deliver on his government’s plans “to develop vaccines against emerging diseases in 100 days”.
New Delhi’s science bureaucracy was determined to simply add more vaccine assembly lines. Foreign aid has been treated only as a matter of funds – like the Quad vaccine deal. Foreign links for new technologies were rejected. He was proud of a national pipeline of more than 30 vaccine possibilities, even though few of them are cutting edge and their development meant a quiet time frame. Events have tragically shown that this attitude was misguided. India should have put the vaccines in mission mode; instead, they were left with a five-year plan.
A longer term problem is the lack of urgency in mastering mRNA vaccine technology. Mutant viruses require agile vaccines. Older technologies on which India depends have gestation periods of 10 years or more. MRNA vaccines can be put together at high speed – no living cells are needed, fewer ingredients are needed, and batches can be made in two hours. New generation mRNAs are scalable and do not require freezers.
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Currently, Gennova is the only Indian company to offer an mRNA candidate. If the next few years are a race between Covid variants and vax upgrades, mRNA will become the global standard. And if India doesn’t find allies to develop its own versions, it will lose its vaccine supremacy and end up seeing its own costs rise. China has started testing its first mRNA vaccine, Walvax. The CEO of Pfizer told investors he plans to sell Covid boosters for $ 150 and up.
Engagement with Britain is not the only element of India’s new vaxpolitik. The United States, the European Union and Japan are also crucial. A single vaccine vial may require up to 200 different ingredients and components. Many of them are monopolies. The styling technology used in all mRNA vaccines, for example, is the monopoly of a US company. When India’s Foreign Minister and his US counterpart Anthony Blinken met at the G-7 foreign ministers meeting, vaccines were the number one topic on the agenda – as will be. theme of their discussion during Jaishankar’s current visit to Washington.
Vaxpolitik requires the national healthcare and life sciences bureaucracy to think strategically, with India as part of a global coalition rather than an autonomous nation. A deep-rooted tradition that pharmaceuticals are all about price haggling, using the intellectual property of others, and sticking to outdated processes needs to be changed.
Washington’s move to the left on the issue could mean India will get patent waivers for mRNA ingredients. If so, New Delhi must have a plan to help Indian pharmaceutical companies master the new techniques and standards required. Vaccines were once a sleepy, low-margin, high-volume niche that multinational pharmaceutical companies were happy to leave in India. It is set to become ruthless, high-tech and geopolitical with no guarantee that India will come out on top.
Opinions expressed are personal
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