A leading economic rights group in India has hit out at the nation’s biggest vaccine manufacturing company, the Serum Institute of India (SII), over its decision to invest over $300 million in the United Kingdom, saying that the move would contribute to increasing the “vaccine inequity” between rich and developing nations.
“I am afraid that the announcement seems to have been made under the influence of Bill Gates, who doesn’t want countries like India, South Africa and Brazil to have equitable access to COVID vaccine,” Ashwani Mahajan, the co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), told Sputnik on Thursday.
The SJM is the economic wing of Hindu nationalist outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Microsoft co-founder has been facing massive criticism in India over his recent remarks that he doesn’t support waiving intellectual property rights (IPR) on vaccine patents.
“There’s only so many vaccine factories in the world. People are pretty serious about the safety of vaccines. So moving something that’s never been done… Moving a vaccine from, say, a Johnson and Johnson factory into a factory in India… That’s not normal,” Gates told Sky News in an interview on 25 April.
“The US and the UK will be able to make sure that the vaccines are now going to the developing countries,” offered the American entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist.
The SJM co-convenor refers to a study conducted by the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), which claimed last year that Gates "pushed" the University of Oxford to deliver its leading COVID-19 vaccine candidate to a partnership with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Originally, the British university wanted an “open licence” for its vaccine, better known as Covishield.
Mahajan also pointed out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has so far committed $300 million in funding to Gavi’s COVAX AMC, a global grouping that aims to provide equitable access to COVID vaccine in middle and low-income countries. According to an agreement between Gavi and the Serum Institute of India (SII), the Indian facility is obliged to manufacture 200 million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covishield vaccine to 64 low and middle-income countries.
However, the supplies hit a roadblock over the last two months on account of increased demand for the COVID vaccine in India, which is in the grips of a devastating second COVID wave.
The SII announced last week that it would invest over $300 million in the United Kingdom to scale up its vaccine manufacturing abilities in the wake of increased global demand.
Mahajan says that the money could have been invested in India, which is facing a crippling shortage of vaccines amid a surge in infections.
"Ramping up vaccine production facilities in India and other developing countries makes more sense than having them transported from the developed nations," reckons Mahajan.
The South Asian country has been recording over 300,000 new daily infections for 13 straight days. The federal health ministry reported over 412,000 new cases on Thursday, the highest daily tally recorded globally.
India Doesn’t Have to Rely on US for Patent Waiver
Mahajan has called upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to look into India’s own Patent Act in order to expedite the approval of COVID vaccines in the country.
“We don't have to rely on the US and other developed countries for waivers. The only question remaining is that of technology transfer from the current manufacturing companies to others,” noted Mahajan.
His observations on patent waivers come a day after the Joe Biden administration announced that it would support the waving of intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, which has been a longstanding demand of countries such as India and South Africa.
“We will actively participate in the text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexities of the issues involved,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement on Wednesday.
Mahajan feels that India didn’t have any more time to “lose”, given the serious situation in the country.
He alleges that given his previous refusal to share vaccine technology with India, Gates would also try to block the Biden administration’s efforts to get the IP waivers finally removed.
Mahajan says that his outfit is organising a protest against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at its Delhi office on Friday, with many more of the group’s supporters also expected to join online.
“Through our protest tomorrow, we want to highlight that the world must stand united in combating the pandemic. Technology transfer must be enabled so that populations across the world are vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Mahajan.