As the race to the finish line to get the world's first SARS-CoV-2 vaccine heats up, global health experts say that India will play a critical role in ensuring the vaccine is available to the world.
V K Paul, member NITI Aayog said that India's technological capabilities (whether it is for the vaccine or anything else) would not just be for India and Indians alone, but for the whole world. He added that in India the best scientific and ethical principles as well as regulatory mechanism is in place to ensure Covid vaccine development. "This is being watched by none other than our Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) himself," Paul quipped.
Criticising an ever increasing 'vaccine nationalism', microbiologist Peter Piot who has been appointed by the European Commission as special advisor on the response to Covid-19 said that India has a key role to play in making the vaccine available to the world. "Without you, we won't have enough vaccines to serve the world," Piot said at an international vaccine symposium organised by the country's apex medical research body the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He further elaborated that that India has vaccine makers like the Serum Institute, Biological E, Bharat Biotech among others and without these capacities, it is not possible to offer the vaccine to the world.
India has already expressed interest to join Covax, the World Health Organisation (WHO)-Gavi Covid-19 vaccine alliance that is working closely with both vaccine developers and countries to pool in resources and also share the risk of vaccine development. The idea is to achieve scales of manufacturing of the Covid vaccine as soon as a candidate becomes successful.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director for South East Asia said the WHO is supporting the Covax facility. She added that the WHO is already working on the allocation framewrok for Covid19 vaccines to ensure equitable distribution.
"The initial tranche of doses will be made available to all countries to ensure that health workers are immunised followed by high risk adults. Subsequent allocations will be made based on country and population vulnerability," she added.
Experts like Khetrapal also highlighted that the traditional platforms we have cannot deliver on the kind of manufacturing scale that will be required for the Covid vaccine.
There is a growing consensus amidst activists in India that it needs to ensure a fair supply of vaccines in case an international candidate gets approved first.
Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR felt that India will have a huge role to play in the global Covid vaccine landscape. "India has been one of the largest producers of low cost vaccines supplying to over 150 countries. It will have huge role to play here. It will be require collaborations across borders. If the global community unites, then together we can overcome the Covid pandemic."
He felt that while the need for a vaccine is 'great and urgent', one needs to balance speed with safety. In fact, Anthony Fauci, US physician and immunologist who is also the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said,"We should do what we can to accelerate it, but no shortcuts." Speaking about the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine candidates, Fauci mentioned that there could be sites outside of the US. India's Department of Biotechnology and the NIAID are partners for almost 30 years.
Meanwhile, India is preparing a plan to decide on the prioritisation of the vaccine distribution - who should get it first? Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan that the dilemma is whether to reduce cases or reduce deaths. Bhushan added that outside of the government there is already a growing consensus that the frontline health workers have the best claim to the vaccine. This would also avoid shortage of healthcare professionals.