"If the world managed to conquer COVID-19, it would be because of India’s tremendous pharmaceutical capacity," Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau said during a call with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on February 10.
Trudeau had called to secure more vaccine doses and India, seeking to improve its influence in the world and project itself as the leader in this time of peril, assured every assistance.
Just three weeks ago, on January 19, India had announced its ambitious Vaccine Maitri programme to help the world overcome the COVID challenge. Through this programme, India supplied much-needed vaccines to neighbouring countries including Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal among others.
The move, which came amid a global scramble for vaccines, was lauded by world leaders. WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom thanked India for sharing the crucial commodity in pandemic-ridden times, and IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath said India "really stands out in terms of its vaccine policy."
When a shipment of half a million vaccines reached Canada on March 3, billboards mushroomed in major cities praising Narendra Modi and India's humanitarian initiatives.
It seemed India's 'vaccine diplomacy' was paying rich dividends. It helped that the world's largest vaccine manufacturer was in India. When Modi spoke about India's vaccine production and delivery capacity, he was referring to the abilities of this manufacturer – Serum Institute of India (SII), a private company.
Surely Modi was aware that like any private company, SII can also get into direct contracts with other entities. And that was precisely what happened. Last year, SII signed licensing agreements with AstraZeneca and Novavax for 1 billion doses to supply to low and middle-income countries, including India.
At the same time, GAVI, the vaccine alliance, working to provide equitable access to vaccines also announced a collaboration with SII for the manufacturing and delivery of 200 million doses of COVID vaccines.
However, when the first set of vaccines started rolling out from SII's facilities in Pune earlier this year, India claimed them all as its endowment to the world. With each shipment, Twitter was ransacked by the Sangh-army hailing Modi as the 'Vaccine guru' and tooting India's dominance.
In truth, only about 10 million doses (i.e. one-sixth of the total 60 million shipped until March 2021) were given as grants by the Indian government. The remaining 85 per cent of it were commercial deals and SII’s contractual obligations for which GAVI and other entities had paid it upfront capital.
At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in March, India's ambassador K Nagaraj Naidu proudly announced that the country had supplied more vaccines globally than have vaccinated its own people. He also lamented the lack of global cooperation in tackling the virus and warned that any disparity in the accessibility of vaccines will affect the poorest nations the most.
Second wave crashes India’s hopes
Two months after Naidu's speech, India has grounded its much-touted Vaccine Maitri program amid an alarming surge of COVID cases in the country. India had for long cast its eyes on foreign shores that it failed to see the evolving crisis at home.
Even when experts warned of a possible second wave, many including Health Minister Harsh Vardhan played it down citing that the likely surge, if it does happen, is mainly because of people's carelessness. According to him, the COVID pandemic which had brought the whole world to its knees was in the 'endgame' here in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too had said something similar – even as early as January 28. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Modi said that fears about a COVID tsunami in India were unfounded as the country had not only defeated COVID, but it has also built adequate infrastructure to handle it.
On February 10, when Trudeau spoke to Modi, daily COVID cases in India had long plateaued and were showing signs of decline. A false sense of security had by then set in. People were starting to believe that the worst was behind them.
The worst was yet to come.
The second wave caught India unaware. Super-spreader events like the Kumbh Mela and Holi festival, not to mention the swarm of rallies conducted in six states where Assembly elections were looming, meant that a whole lot of people were exposed to the virus in a country where only less than 2 per cent of the population were fully vaccinated. And the media, that had made such a hue and cry over the Tablighi Jamaat meeting last year, raised no concerns this time around.
Now, the government of India is pinning its hopes on SII amid an alarming vaccine shortage in the country. The 260 million doses that India had secured as of May 3 translates only to about 10 per cent of its population getting one dose and 3 per cent both the doses. At the current rate, it would take 3 years for the entire population of India to be fully vaccinated.
Recently, SII chief Adar Poonawalla said that his firm “never exports vaccines at the cost of the people of India”, but he explained that the country's vaccination drive cannot be completed in two or three months as the government now desires so as to quell the festering anger among the population.
He also points out that any delay in releasing these vaccines will jeopardise the fight against the pandemic which knows no borders. Slighting Pfizer, the first firm to offer COVID-19 vaccine to the country, with its 'Atmanirbhar' bravado too has cost India dearly. Now, the government is scrambling to secure the global pharma giant's assistance.
As of May 27, 1.81 billion doses have been administered in the world. Despite India's claim that Vaccine Maitri will save the world, it only accounted for less than 5 per cent of global doses. Several of them, as is clear now, are contractual obligations of SII.
GAVI and the many countries that were relying on Indian vaccines have already reached out to China. So much for India's diplomacy game!
The Modi government's tall dreams and gross mismanagement have plunged India into a catastrophe. On May 28, India's COVID death toll climbed to 3,18,895 with 3,660 new fatalities. The country reported 1,86,364 new cases in 24 hours taking the number of active cases to well over 27.5 lakhs.
Well-off countries who were largely blamed for hoarding vaccines and other essential supplies during the first phase of the pandemic, now realizing the full extent of the calamity that has befallen India, are rushing oxygen, vaccines and other medical supplies to the country. There’s also another matter.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated into another variant, a deadlier one - the B.1.617. So far, it's been detected in 44 countries including Canada. On May 10, the WHO declared this more infectious variant capable of overriding the human body's immune system as one of "global concern".
And yet the Indian government is stifling any discussion on the B.1.617 strain. It is even demanding that social media companies remove all references to this “Indian variant” from their platforms. The development comes amid a time when these tech giants are also forced to adopt sweeping policy changes. The government is literally threatening to undermine these platforms even as much of India's COVID relief operations are coordinated through these platforms.
Justin Trudeau is not far off. If the world does manage to conquer COVID, it would be because India did too.
The author Ronnie Kuriakose can be reached via his Twitter - @ron_of_kochi