It’s time for India to reinvigorate vaccine diplomacy in South Asia
The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted high costs on the health and socio-economic well-being of people around the world. International organizations such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization have unanimously stressed the importance of international cooperation to ensure the smooth flow of vaccines and other vital medical supplies between countries. Like many other countries engaged in global vaccine cooperation, India has been among the forerunners of its “vaccine diplomacy”.
The world’s third largest producer of pharmaceuticals, India has supported the global community on several fronts, including launching the “Vaccine Maitri” initiative in January 2021. According to The data released by the Foreign Ministry, approximately 6.64 crore doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were exported to 95 countries, of which 3.58 crore doses were supplied to 26 countries under commercial contracts, 1.07 crore to 47 countries in the form of grants and 1.98 crore to 47 countries under the COVAX facility.
After initially garnering global applause, India recently received harsh criticism when the deadly second wave of COVID-19 engulfed the country – internally for sending vaccines overseas and international organizations for denying its claims. promises. Due to an internal shortage, the government had to temporarily suspend vaccine exports, until its production was deemed adequate to meet both national and international communities.
Even though the situation in India remains critical and stopping exports seems to be the only option at the moment, it is also important to reaffirm the importance of the vaccine trade.
There is considerable trade in vaccines globally. Over the past five years, the global trade in vaccines for human medicine has grown 50-fold, from $ 42.91 billion in 2016 to $ 65.14 billion in 2020. This trend has been driven mainly by advanced economies, such as Belgium, Ireland, France, the United States and Italy.
To better understand the supply and demand conditions that drive vaccine trade, let’s analyze trade data for the past two years. If we look at 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, we see that vaccines were exported by 92 countries but imported by 214 countries. In 2020, vaccines were only exported by 88 countries, but again imported by 214 countries. These figures show that the demand for vaccines is far greater than the supply. The top ten vaccine exporters account for 92% of total exports. Interestingly, India was the only developing country to be among the top ten vaccine exporters, both in 2019 and 2020.
|Table 1: Main exporters of vaccines|
|S. No.||Ranking of the best exporters in 2019||Ranking of the best exporters in 2020|
|4||UK||united states of america|
|5||united states of america||Italy|
Source: Trade card, International Trade Center
India’s vaccine exports to South Asia
India is also a major source of vaccine exports for the South Asian region, which is home to around a quarter of the world’s population and is experiencing a deadly wave of COVID-19 infections. According to a UNICEF press release, the region accounts for half of all new infections known to the world. The death rate has increased, crippling the existing infrastructure of the health sector. Trade in vaccines and other important medical supplies is an important way not only to save lives, but also help create more robust health systems across South Asia before potential future waves of the pandemic.
As part of India’s vaccine diplomacy, around a quarter of India’s total COVID vaccine supply has gone to countries in South Asia.
India’s importance as a supplier of vaccines to South Asia was well established even before the pandemic. South Asian countries have historically been dependent on India for the supply of vaccines against other diseases such as cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, rabies, measles, mumps and rubella, polio, among others. Since 2014, India’s vaccine exports to South Asia have nearly doubled from $ 16.06 million to $ 34.53 million in 2018.
The loss of India, the gain of China?
Since India suspended its vaccine exports, South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have increased their dependence on China for COVID-19 vaccines. According to reports, China has already given 1.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Sri Lanka. Bangladesh also received its first donation of half a million vaccines from China in May 2021 and Nepal was promised a million more doses. Analysts see China’s vaccine diplomacy as a way to regain ground and influence in the strategic Indian Ocean.
At a time when the COVID-19 crisis and vaccine diplomacy had provided India with an indispensable platform to guide regional cooperation in South Asia, being forced to suspend exports on the one hand and influence China’s growing growth on the other hand can have far-reaching political consequences and strategic implications. While protecting the lives of its own people is definitely a priority, India is expected to increase its production capacity to a level that will eventually allow it to resume vaccine deliveries to other countries, especially its immediate vicinity.
Samridhi Bimal is an independent consultant. The opinions expressed are personal.