As several Indian states are reporting a shortage of COVID vaccines amid a record surge in coronavirus infections this week, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, the ongoing progamme to supply COVID jabs to other countries, is facing sharp criticism in the country.
Rahul Gandhi, a key leader of the country’s main federal opposition Congress Party, on Friday called for an “immediate moratorium” on India’s vaccine exports, expressing concern over the second surge in infections.
Calls for banning the export of COVID vaccine come as the South Asian country has witnessed over 100,000 new cases in four of the last five days, per the federal health ministry. India’s second COVID wave is much more widespread than the first in 2020, prompting state governments to reimpose curbs on the movement of people as well as night-time curfews in certain areas.
The federal health minister of India, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, has denied claims by several state authorities as well as the federal opposition that India faces a shortage of the COVID vaccine.
Sputnik caught up with senior Congress federal lawmaker and former Indian minister Manish Tewari to learn his views on Modi’s ongoing COVID diplomacy:
Sputnik: Should India put a temporary ban on the export of COVID vaccines?
Manish Tewari: India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme is certainly a well-intentioned one on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But, there is a shortage of vaccines domestically, which begs an obvious question. The government should prioritise the domestic market first and place an immediate ban on the export of vaccines, which is part of its vaccine diplomacy. At the same time, the supply chain as well as the manufacturing capacity must be optimized to meet the domestic requirement for COVID vaccine.
The government must take into account that India is currently in throes a second COVID surge. At such a critical moment, we must ensure that everyone is entitled to vaccination, especially youth below the age of 45 years who are currently exempted from being vaccinated.
The younger population constitutes the majority of India’s workforce population. It is responsible to keep the wheels of the economy turning.
Sputnik: The federal health minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, has stated that there is no shortage of the COVID Vaccine in India. How do you see it?
Manish Tewari: There is certainly a contradiction in what the health minister is saying and the situation on the ground. Different states have pressed the alarm button over the shortage of vaccines. They wouldn’t just do it out of narrow political considerations, that too at a time when the country faces a surge in infections.
Many hospitals across the country have put up banners announcing a suspension of their respective vaccine drives due to the lack of vaccines.
Sputnik: Do you think India’s international image will suffer if the Modi government stops exporting or donating vaccines to other countries?
Manish Tewari: Again, I would say that India has been doing a great service to the whole of humanity by trying to make vaccine affordable to other countries. But we are under no contractual obligation to keep supplying the COVID vaccine.
Right now, we must divert all our resources to meet the domestic challenge of this virulent second wave first.
Sputnik: How could India meet the COVID vaccine shortage? Do you back the idea of importing vaccines from other countries?
Manish Tewari: Well, I would suggest a two-step solution to this gap between demand and supply of the COVID vaccine. The government must place long-term orders on the two vaccines — Covaxin and Covishield— currently being administered to the population. We can’t just go on placing piecemeal orders for these vaccines.
The government must work towards a stable supply line and a stable credit line for manufacturers when it comes to securing availability of COVID vaccine domestically.
Simultaneously, the government should work towards granting regulating approval to other vaccine candidates, including Pfizer and Sputnik V among others. However, these new vaccine products definitely need to meet the Indian drug regulatory standards.
Besides the ongoing free vaccination drive, vaccine manufacturing companies should also be allowed to market the jab commercially so that those who could afford the jab aren’t denied access