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India likely to outgun China in developing Covid-19 vaccines

Covid19 vaccines

The contest between India and China as one of the leading providers of Covid-19 vaccines, especially in the Global South, is peaking, with New Delhi set for last mile tests of a slew of anti-coronavirus jabs. Last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India will be ready to roll out Covid-19 vaccines in the next few weeks, which will benefit the world. “India’s vaccination drive would begin as soon as we get a go-ahead from scientists.

The Centre is working on the basis of suggestions from state governments about who will be inoculated in the first phase of the vaccination drive,” the Prime Minister said, adding that the central and state government teams are currently working on the distribution strategy. Modi stressed that India is uniquely positioned to mass produce Covid-19 vaccines, which will have an international demand. “There are names of vaccines from different countries doing the rounds in the market, but the world is keeping a watch on having the cheapest and safest vaccine.

That is why, it is natural that the world is watching India,” he said. India’s three leading vaccine producers, have already triggered a buzz worldwide. Ambassadors from 80 countries will be visiting Hyderabad on Wednesday to visit two of the three firms– Bharat Biotech and Biological-E limited– which are working on the vaccine.

Riding on the fresh momentum, the chances are that India maybe able to edge out China—another vaccine heavyweight, but which is facing headwinds abroad, especially in the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan. Taiwanese media is quoting Chen Shih-Chung, head of the Central Epidemic Command Centre, as saying that Taipei is reluctant to import Chinese Covid-19 vaccines, citing quality and safety concerns. Chou Jih-haw, who sits on Taiwan’s coronavirus task force, points out that China is infamous for its inoculation history of flawed vaccine management and administration.

Scandals have surfaced in China over the years, including over the use of expired polio vaccines in 2019, which led to adverse effects, and hepatitis B vaccines associated with a string of deaths in 2013. Countries belonging to the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) have also been wary of using vaccines under the Made-in-China brand. IndiaNarrative, com had earlier reported that ASEAN members Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia had sealed deals for procuring Covid-19 vaccines from Britain and the US.

The Philippines and Thailand have secured millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. Similarly, Malaysia has signed an agreement with US pharma giant Pfizer to obtain its Covid-19 vaccine for 20 per cent of the population as it struggles to rein in the resurgence of coronavirus cases. China has gone out of the way to woo Bangladesh and Nepal, both with longstanding special relationship with India, as its buyers of the vaccine.

Others who have been promised with Covid-19 vaccine in return for advancing Beijing’s footprint include Myanmar and Indonesia—both pivotal states, which are bound to play a defining role in the lengthy contest for geopolitical ascendancy in the Indo-Pacific. However, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia are deftly side-stepping Beijing’s health dependency trap. Even the current leadership in Nepal is avoiding putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket.

China’s vaccine offensive has systematically followed its so called “mask diplomacy”. Having created enormous excess capacity, apparently to serve its Covid- hit population, Beijing later flooded developing countries with masks churned out by its gigantic factories, once the pandemic was under control at home. By cynically deploying its medical soft power, Beijing softened the ground for a more potent vaccine offensive in countries reeling under the merciless onslaught of the virus. In Bangladesh, a rising economy with umbilical ties with India—a country that is also strategically located bridging South and Southeast Asia—the Chinese have bulldozed their way, armed with a concrete Covid-19 vaccine plan.

Last month, Bangladesh cleared the way for privately owned Chinese company Sinovac Biotech to conduct a stage three clinical trial of its CoronaVac vaccine. Dhaka-based clinical research institute ICDDRB will conduct the trial. In case the trials are successful, it is likely to pave the way for the local production of the vaccine. But Dhaka is cautious about the dangers of falling into a dependency relationship with China, which Beijing can leverage later to its unilateral strategic advantage.

“Bangladesh should ensure that [any] vaccine is not offered as a part of a quid pro quo—especially as a tool to exercise political influence in future,” says Ali Riaz, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, as quoted by the Nikkei Asian Review. Unsurprisingly, Bangladeshi company Beximco Pharmaceuticals last month tied up a deal for bulk vaccine supply with Serum Institute of India. Dhaka is also reaching out to Moscow for locally manufacturing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

Even Nepal is demonstrating its discomfort with prospects of an excessive reliance on China for a Covid-19 vaccine. “The Nepal Health Research Centre (NHRC) has started preparations for clinical trials for vaccines against Covid-19 following a green signal from the health ministry. We are preparing for phase III clinical trials of three vaccines developed in the United Kingdom, China, and Russia,” Pradip Gyawali, member secretary at the NHRC, was quoted as saying by the Nepalese daily, Republica.

China’s vaccine assault has vigorously targeted Myanmar, but frictions between Beijing and Naypyitaw are showing, which might impact vaccine imports. In August last year, during a meeting with China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Defence Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing confronted the Beijing official with photographs of Chinese-made weapons, which had been recovered during the Myanmar army’s clashes with the Northern Alliance (NA), a four-member coalition, which includes the Arakan  Army. But hoping to reverse the negative tide, China’s trouble shooter Yang Jiechi, a part of the powerful 25-member Politburo of the CPC, dangled the transactional carrot of arming Myanmar with a Covid-19 shield if his hosts re-ignited CMEC projects, soon after he landed in Naypyitaw on September 1.

Like Bangladesh and Nepal, Indonesia, another country on China’s target list  is not interested in giving Beijing monopoly rights for bulk manufacturing the vaccine. Jakarta is currently engaged in the developing its own Merah Putih vaccine, engaging its Research and Technology Ministry and the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology. The second vaccine is being developed jointly by the state-owned PT Bio Farma and Sinovac Biotech of ina. The United Arab Emirates’ Group 42 (G42) Healthcare is developing the third vaccine, earmarked for Indonesia.