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India-US collaboration paving way for stronger supply chains in fight against Covid
Updated At: Jan 17, 2022 05:27 AM (IST)
BIG STRIDES: Joint efforts to manufacture and sell anti-viral Covid pill and vaccines have been successful. PTI
K. P. Nayar
AS the highly transmissible Omicron-fuelled surge in coronavirus infections alarmed Indians in the last one month, a post-Covid-19 India-US healthcare partnership was tapped in Washington to avoid the pitfalls that became emblematic of the second wave of the pandemic in 2021.
India-US healthcare partnership has gone beyond being a bilateral initiative and is global, with much more to come as countries learn to live with coronavirus.
This partnership has yielded significant results in combating the third wave of the pandemic, but has been obscured by a public and media obsession with numbers of coronavirus infections. The current wave of infections has set the stage in the framework of the India-US partnership to find equitable solutions as every country learns to live with Covid-19, including its many variants anticipated in the future.
Last week, the Associated Press (AP) issued guidelines to its editors and reporters to avoid emphasising case counts in stories about the disease. ‘That means, for example, no more stories focused solely on a particular country or state setting a one-day record for number of cases, because that claim has become unreliable,’ said AP’s explanation of its internal guidelines for the public.
In the US, more and more news organisations are following AP’s lead in avoiding an overemphasis on statistics, especially with the Omicron variant reducing the relevance of figures, what with fewer hospitalisations and fatalities. Katherine Wu, who writes on Covid-19 for The Atlantic, calls the ongoing pandemic coverage in the media as a ‘data disaster’.
Eventually, if the Indian media follows suit, it would be possible to extrapolate lessons from the India-US Covid-19-related healthcare partnership and create better awareness of the initiative. The public has been hamstrung in India by a lack of awareness in this matter.
As soon as predictions began of a third wave in India, amidst dire warnings about the Omicron variant, India’s ambassador in Washington, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, got into a succession of meetings with leaders of the US pharmaceutical industry. These meetings are continuing: the latest was a week ago with Joe Almeida, CEO of Baxter International. It is expected to pave the way for stronger health supply chains in the fight against the pandemic.
Baxter is a good example of the horizons in India-US healthcare partnership. Over three years ago, this US pharmaceutical company expanded its global footprint into Gujarat by buying Claris, an injectables manufacturer in Ahmedabad with an investment of $625 million. This investment’s significance is the eventual acceptability for Indian pharmaceutical products in the US through the best practices of US companies. At the time of the purchase, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had several adverse inspection reports against Claris. Three years on, Baxter has claimed that the Ahmedabad plant ‘has been through a transformative journey to evolve and nurture a culture of safety, integrity and quality’.
A week prior, the New Jersey-headquartered pharmaceuticals multinational, Merck, licensed Dr Reddy’s Laboratories in Bengaluru to manufacture and sell its anti-viral Covid pill, Molnupiravir using the generic brand name Molflu. When it was announced that Molflu will be available to Indians at 2 per cent of what it costs Americans, Sandhu cited it as an ‘example of India-US collaboration leading to affordable solutions in public health’. Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said 13 Indian companies would eventually sell Molnupiravir at similarly affordable prices.
Maryland-based Novavax Inc., which produces vaccines against Covid, granted Serum Institute of India the rights to manufacture their vaccine in Pune under the brand name of Covovax. All these US treatments were swiftly granted emergency use permissions by India’s Drugs Controller General (DCGI), unlike during the second wave, when confusion reigned both at political and administrative levels on approvals and treatment protocols.
An offshoot of the India-US healthcare partnership that has domestic political ramifications in the US has been the emergency use permission by the DCGI for a low-cost vaccine developed in Texas by the Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. It has been licensed through the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to be manufactured in Hyderabad by Biological E under the brand name of Corbevax.
Because the vaccine’s developers do not belong to the big pharma, but are independent health science institutions, the low-cost vaccine has become the pride of Texas. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, made a point of the institution’s decision as ‘a gift to the world’. It does not plan to make any profit from the new vaccine. The vaccine technology will be transferred to Indonesia, Bangladesh and Botswana, in addition to India.
In Texas, reaction to the DCGI approval was swift. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who has a good chance to create history in this year’s election of Governor of this Republican state, lost no time in hailing the vaccine development as a Texan achievement.
Not to be left behind, US Senator John Cornyn of Texas tom-tommed the initiative as a milestone for Texas. Cornyn has a special interest in India’s use of Corbevax: he is one of the most active members of the Senate India Caucus and has been its Republican Co-Chair several times. Indian Americans generously fund his campaigns because he is one of the most vocal supporters of India on Capitol Hill. Manufacturing Corbevax in Hyderabad will, therefore, have implications in India-US relations that go well beyond healthcare.
India and the US started a bilateral Health Dialogue in 2015, but it largely languished until the pandemic outbreak two years ago. Since then, the India-US healthcare partnership has gone beyond being a bilateral initiative and is global with much more to come as countries learn to live with coronavirus.
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