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India will not let down neighbours awaiting covid vaccine

India will not let down neighbours awaiting covid vaccine

India is set to roll out its first stock of coronavirus vaccines from the Serum Institute of India (SII), amid expectations from South Asian neighbours that New Delhi will stand by them to provide the much needed jabs.

Their expectations are high, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday that India will "save humanity" by providing two India-made vaccines to the rest of the world. Highlighting that Indian vaccines are the most cost effective in the world, he has assured on many occasions that India will provide coronavirus vaccines to the world, prioritising its neighbours. This is an assurance which Foreign Minister Jaishankar and Indian diplomats too have given to the world.

India has so far given emergency approval to two vaccines – the Oxford vaccine and Bharat Biotech's Covaxin.

India's coronavirus vaccine programme will be one of the largest immunisation drives in the world – which will not just inoculate India but also support its South Asian neighbours by providing them the much-needed vaccines. India plans a successful redo of its hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) diplomacy of mid-2020 in the aftermath of the global Covid-19 scare, when it supplied the sought-after tablets to over a 100 nations.

Despite expectations, South Asian media has been wondering when and how India plans to supply the vaccines to other countries, particularly as its own needs are enormous.

India seems to have resolved some of these concerns. <em>The Hindustan Times</em> reported on Tuesday that India will send a limited quantity of Covid-19 vaccines to neighbouring countries for emergency use under the grant-in-aid programme, which will commence soon after the domestic vaccination process starts on January 16. The commercial supplies of the vaccine will follow slightly later.

In December, India had trained over 100 experts from neighbouring countries to strengthen their capacities for facilitating the Phase-3 clinical trials of the Indian Covid-19 vaccine. The initiative was taken by the Department of Biotechnology and the Ministry of External Affairs for experts from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal and Sri Lanka, to also familiarise them with the Indian vaccines.

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced in her New Year address that Myanmar has already signed the deal. She said: "The purchase contract for buying the first batch of the vaccines from India has already been signed. As soon as the authorities concerned in India have issued permission to use this vaccine, we have made arrangements for the import of these vaccines into Myanmar."

Similarly, in a press conference on Monday, officials of the Directorate General of Health Services said that Bangladesh will get the first shipment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from India between January 21 and 25. Bangladesh had entered into a tripartite agreement between the government, SII and Beximco Pharmaceuticals on November 5 for the vaccines.

Sri Lanka too expects the Covid-19 vaccine to reach its shores by February. State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid-19 Disease Control, Sudarshani Fernandopulle said that the government is in discussion with the Indian government to obtain the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, who was in Sri Lanka last week reassured the island nation, saying: "We are now looking at post-Covid cooperation and I carry back with me Sri Lanka's interest in accessing vaccines from India…"

Nepal seems to be pinning its hopes on India for inoculating its people. Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, who is visiting India this Thursday, has the vaccine on top of his mind. <em>The Kathmandu Times</em> reported that Nepal’s Ambassador Nilamber Acharya has already held two rounds of talks with SII and also met senior officials of Bharat Biotech in order to speed up vaccine procurement." Gyawali has also written to the foreign ministers of both India and China regarding procuring the vaccine, though Nepal prefers the Indian version due to medical and clinical reasons.

Bhutanese Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering had disclosed last week that the government was in talks with India and some countries in the West. However, he added that Bhutan was expecting support from neighbouring India and logistically too they found "the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was the ideal candidate for Bhutan for now," reports <em>Kuensel Online</em>. Even Bhutan’s Ambassador to India, Vetsop Namgyel has stated that “Vaccines in India are the ones which will be easiest to administer and transport. Most countries will benefit from it. India is known to produce in bulk quantities, once approved it can be rolled out quickly.”

Last week, India's efforts at scientific research and proactive efforts in the drive against coronavirus came in for praise from tech guru Bill Gates and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The latter has called for a fast roll out and equitable distribution of the vaccine as fears rise that the low-income group countries may not be able to procure the jabs on time.

As the rich and the middle-income countries booking their vaccines with manufacturers across the world, nations feeling left out are looking up to India to provide the safety net against the pandemic that began over a year ago from Wuhan in China. India is clear that it will rise to the occasion through vaccine diplomacy..