Script by Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji, Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations
Addressing the UN General Assembly on 26 September 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stressed the need to strengthen the vision of the United Nations as one family, mirroring India’s civilizational outlook of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakkam giving priority to global welfare. India gave an assurance to the international community that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity would be used on a global scale, including in enhancing the cold chain and storage capacities for the delivery of these vaccines in all countries.
India’s efforts to counter the Covid-19 virus have been led by Indian scientists at the Bharat Biotech facility in Hyderabad, which became the first Indian company to manufacture Covaxin in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research. In parallel, other Indian companies like the Pune-based Serum Institute of India and Chennai-based Dr Reddy’s Laboratories have entered joint manufacturing and supply arrangements for the UK’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and Russia’s Gamaleya Sputnik-5 vaccine respectively.
As a result of these initiatives, India began to roll out her national vaccination drive from 16 January 2021, prioritizing frontline responders to the pandemic. Almost 8 million vaccines have been administered in India so far. From 20 January 2021, India began airlifting over 6 million vaccines to more than 40 countries in South Asia, the Gulf, Africa, Europe, and Latin America, including the vulnerable small island states in the Pacific and Caribbean.
The response of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica illustrated the significance of India’s “vaccine diplomacy” initiative. He said that “it is to the credit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that our request was considered on merit and the equality of our people was recognized”. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized that “India has one of the most advanced pharmaceutical industries. India played a very important role in the production of generics for use that was a very important element of democratization of access to medicines all over the world.”
Achieving the democratization of access to medicines worldwide will rely on two global platforms. One is the $2 billion COVAX facilities established in June 2020. Implementing the vision of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 17 on Partnerships, the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI)’s COVAX is designed to provide easy and safe access to a diverse portfolio of WHO-approved vaccines. The Serum Institute of India currently provides the bulk of the vaccines delivered through the GAVI in 170 countries worldwide. At the June 2020 Summit of the GAVI, Prime Minister Modi pledged $15 million to GAVI’s activities, which are implemented through a multiple stakeholder engagement of governments, global health organizations, manufacturers, private sector, scientists, civil society, and philanthropy. In January 2021, India announced her decision to supply 10 million vaccines for Africa and 1 million vaccines for frontline UN workers through COVAX.
The second platform is the World Trade Organization (WTO), where India and South Africa took the initiative in October 2020 to propose a waiver from restrictive trade-related intellectual property rules for WTO members to counter Covid-19. This includes ensuring greater availability of diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products. In the face of increasing “vaccine nationalism” in some developed countries, the India-South Africa initiative in the WTO is a significant attempt to use global trade policies for supporting the development of sustainable manufacturing capacities in developing countries to counter Covid-19. The WTO’s consensus decision on electing Nigeria’s Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its next Director-General has become relevant for this proposal, as she chaired the GAVI Board in 2018.
India’s “vaccine diplomacy” initiative, taken early during her two-year term as an elected member of the UN Security Council, has illustrated how the UN needs to address the interlinked issues of peace, security, and technology for sustainable development in a holistic manner. The convergence of all members of the Security Council in supporting an integrated global approach to countering Covid-19 will contribute meaningfully to the objective of “reformed multilateralism” for the welfare of humanity.