RIYADH: On Jan. 16, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the world’s largest coronavirus vaccination program in India. Its target is to inoculate 300 million people by August 2021. More than a million received their first dose within a week of the launch.
Over the past several months, more than 30 Indian groups from academia and industry have been involved in the development, collaboration and trials of the COVID-19 vaccines in India. Six vaccine candidates, including three indigenously developed ones, have reached the clinical stages of development. Two vaccines — Covishield, licensed from AstraZeneca and Oxford University and produced by the Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, indigenously developed by Bharat Biotech in partnership with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) — have been approved for emergency use in the country.
The vaccination program is a perfect example of “Atmanirbhar Bharat,” or “Self-reliant India,” which is delivering affordable and quality solutions to all citizens by harnessing domestic potential. What stands out is the commitment given by the prime minister that “India’s vaccines, our production capacity, serve the interest of the whole of humanity.” In line with this vision, India has begun global supplies of the “Made in India” vaccine to several countries. Following a “Neighborhood First” policy, supplies of the vaccine under grant assistance to Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and the Seychelles began on Jan. 20, with more likely to follow.
India has also offered commercial exports of the Covishield vaccine to Saudi Arabia, which is testimony to the increasing strategic partnership between the two countries.
India’s leadership status as a vaccine producer is unrivaled; the country is one of the world’s largest vaccine producers with 60 percent of global vaccine production. Indian producers supply 1.5 billion doses of vaccines annually to more than 150 countries. The WHO sources 70 percent of its essential immunization vaccines from India. India’s leadership in vaccine research and development (R&D) is a result of a well-developed ecosystem linking public and private sectors as well as academia and industry in networks that stimulate innovation.
India’s vaccine ecosystem has steadily developed since the 1960s. Innovative private-sector companies that began by manufacturing standard vaccines have gone on to produce new and complex vaccines at affordable costs (for example, the Rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis vaccines), eventually becoming a billion-dollar industry. Currently, the major Indian vaccine manufacturers have a total installed capacity able to produce 8.2 billion doses of different vaccines a year. The Pune-based Serum Institute, which is manufacturing the Covishield vaccine, is the world’s largest vaccine maker in terms of the number of doses produced and sold globally each year.
Strengthening vaccine R&D through active engagement with global leaders has been a focus area. The Indo-US Vaccine Action Program, a bilateral operation jointly run by the Department of Biotechnology, Indian Council of Medical Research and the US National Institute of Health, has been recognized internationally as a model bilateral program. Other bilateral programs with countries such as Norway, France, Australia and Finland are also in place.
India’s vaccine capacity and its ability to deliver safe, low-cost vaccines have also been leveraged by global health bodies. India has the largest number of manufacturers prequalified by WHO for international procurement. At the Global Vaccine Summit in June 2020, Prime Minister Modi announced a contribution of $15 million to GAVI, the vaccine alliance, stressing that India had become a donor to GAVI while still being eligible for GAVI support.
Because of its strengths in pharmaceutical manufacturing, R&D and innovation, India has emerged as one of the major centers of transnational efforts to combat COVID-19. It has lived up to its reputation as a global supplier of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), Remdesivir and paracetamol, as well as producing diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to many countries during the pandemic.
The government of India continues to evolve mechanisms for supporting end-to-end vaccine development and augmenting necessary capacities to reinforce the country’s reputation as the “pharmacy of the world” and underpin its status as a long-trusted partner in meeting the global community’s health care needs.
— Asim Anwar is second secretary (press, culture and education) at the Embassy of India in Riyadh.