Vaccine Maitri: Together we emerge stronger

Guyana came on the COVID-19 radar when it confirmed its first imported case of Coronavirus in Georgetown on 11th March 2020. More than a year has elapsed, and the pandemic shows no signs of abating. The situation is no better in most countries of the world. Out of the few known ways to combat the novel coronavirus is the COVID-19 vaccine, developed simultaneously by many companies and countries across the world. It was personally a matter of great honour to receive a consignment of 80,000 ‘Made in India’, WHO-approved Oxford-AstraZeneca COVISHIELD vaccine doses on 7th March at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, alongside Hon. Brig. (Retd.) Mark Phillips, Prime Minister of Guyana, Hon. Dr. Frank Anthony, Health Minister and Hon. Hugh Todd, Minister of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. The vaccine consignment is a gift from the people and the Government of India to the people of Guyana. With Guyana having now started the vaccination process, I am hopeful that the Made in India vaccines will prove helpful in safeguarding the most vulnerable and those at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19. 

The vaccine consignment to Guyana is part of India’s larger effort named ‘Vaccine Maitri’ or ‘Vaccine Friend-ship’, under which India has so far shipped 58 million doses of vaccines to 71 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. The recipient countries include UK, Canada, Brazil and Mexico. Both Covishield and Covaxin have been exported so far – some in the form of “gifts”, others in line with commercial agreements signed between the vaccine makers and the recipient nations, and the rest under the Covax scheme, which is led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and hopes to deliver more than two billion doses to people in 190 countries in less than a year. In the coming days, India will supply vaccines to more countries in Europe, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Recently, India gifted 175,000 doses of Made in India Covid-19 vaccine – COVISHIELD for the benefit of several CARICOM countries, Antigua and Barbuda (40,000 doses), St. Kitts and Nevis (20,000 doses), St. Lucia (25,000 doses), St. Vincent and Grenadines (40,000 doses) and Suriname (50,000 doses) which is part of an overall 570,000 vaccine donation to the CARICOM region. This is done as we undertake the world’s largest vaccination drive back home, having inoculated close to 30 million including health and front-line workers and those over 60 years of age. 

Many have asked in hushed tones what India seeks in return from distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. “There is more than meets the eye,” they say. “There is definitely some quid pro quo,” others state. I feel a sense of ‘déjà vu’ remembering that similar questions were raised when India’s Cipla company had slashed the price of the AIDS-recommended fixed-drug combination in 2001 from US$12,000 by Western companies to US$350 per year, or less than a dollar per day, benefiting many in poor regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 

By delivering the COVISHIELD vaccine within days of its rollout, India has once again demonstrated its willingness and ability to act as a First Responder to crises in the World, including in Guyana. In the case of coronavirus, India has realized that it is impossible to control the pandemic by restricting vaccination only to India. Global problems such as these cannot be solved by adhering to national boundaries. This is also the reason that, besides starting vaccination in India and gifting to developing countries, India has also opened up the Made in India COVID-19 vaccines for use in COVAX facility, GAVI Alliance and for commercial procurement around the world.

The logic behind India’s approach can also be found in its age-old philosophy of “Vasudheva kutumbakam,” which means that the world is one family. This philosophy is not just a speak-sake but has informed the Indian mind and our outlook to the world since time immemorial. It is this philosophy that is the core of India’s foreign policy approach and our emphasis on South-South cooperation. Dr. S. Jaishankar, Foreign Minister of India  said “The Bhagavad Gita states do your work with the welfare of others always in mind and that is Vaccine Maitri=Vaccine Friendship”.  It is in this spirit that India also provided more than US$ one million worth of 35 life-saving ventilators and COVID-related medicines and medical equipment, including Hydroxichloroquine, personal protection equipment kits and masks to Guyana that I personally handed over on 2nd September 2020.

 Another reason India could pull off Vaccine Maitri and medical donations is because of its huge pharmaceutical manufacturing and vaccine development capacity, built painstakingly over the years. India is the largest provider of generic medicines globally, and also the only country with the largest number of US FDA-compliant pharma plants outside the USA. With more than 3,000 pharma companies and over 10,000 manufacturing facilities, India is referred to as the pharmacy of the world. Over 62 per cent of the world’s vaccines also come from India and form the backbone of mass vaccination programmes by entities like UNICEF and WHO. Indian vaccines are not only uncompromising in quality and safety, but are also the most affordable in the world. This is what prompted United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to recently say that in the times of COVID-19, the vaccine production capacity of India is “the best asset the world has today”. The people across the globe have expressed concern about the need for larger countries not to engage in the practice of ‘vaccine hoarding’. WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus has also said that the world is “on the brink of a moral catastrophic failure” and has warned that a “me-first approach” in distributing vaccines “will only prolong the pandemic”.

As far as COVID-19 vaccines are concerned, India has thus far approved two Made in India vaccines for emergency use. The first is the COVISHIELD being produced by Serum Institute of India. The other is COVAXIN, developed by Bharat Biotech, one of the largest vaccine developers in India. COVAXIN has already been administered to many millions in India, including to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with little or no side effects. Recently, the preliminary results from COVAXIN’s Phase 3 clinical trials have shown 81 per cent efficacy. It is also claimed that COVAXIN is effective against the UK strain of COVID-19. The medical journal Lancet has also called COVAXIN “safe, immunogenic with no serious side effects”.

COVAXIN is also being considered for import by Guyana and other countries in the region, including Brazil (which has already ordered 20 million doses), Nicaragua, Paraguay, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, etc. along with multiple other nations such as Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mauritius, some Gulf nations, etc. subject to approval from their regulatory authorities. About half a dozen other COVID-19 vaccines are in different stages of development in India, including an intra-nasal vaccine by Bharat Biotech.

India firmly believes that the only way to defeat the virus is through cooperation and sharing of resources between countries. In the words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “Today India, with not one but two Made in India vaccines, is ready to protect humanity.”

I have no doubt that with closer cooperation we will be able to make progress in not only tackling the pandemic but other global issues like global warming, poverty and terrorism.

I conclude with another ancient Sanskrit couplet, a part of which is also incidentally printed on the COVID-19 vaccine consignment that landed in Guyana:

“Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Bhavantu Niramayah

Sarve Bhadrani Pasyantu, Ma Kascidduh Khabhagbhaveta

“May all be at peace, may no one suffer from illness,

May all see what is auspicious, may no one suffer.”