US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — In India, the number of daily cases of infection has exceeded 400 thousand. The more the coronavirus spreads there, the more it mutates. An option has already emerged that currently approved vaccines cannot provide protection. India needs urgent help, otherwise trouble will threaten the whole world, writes Project Syndicate.
When I was growing up in the Kashmir Valley in northern India, my doctor father often accompanied me to my annual vaccinations. I asked him about how vaccines work and where they were developed. In explaining to me the basics of the biology of the human immune system, my father always emphasized that vaccines are the result of a global effort by scientists and companies around the world who are diligently working to ensure protection for everyone who receives them.
Today, only global action can cope with the ongoing covid-19 crisis in India, where the number of daily infections recently exceeded 400,000 (a world record) and more than 245,000 have died. Epidemiological models from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict that India will continue to see an exponential rise in infection, peaking by mid-May, and the country’s total death toll from covid-19 could eventually exceed a million. While the implications for India are dire, it would be foolish for global policymakers to assume that the impact of the crisis will be limited to one country.
This is because the more the coronavirus spreads and multiplies in India, the more it mutates. The uncontrolled circulation of the virus will lead to new variants that could prolong the pandemic. Variant B.1.617, responsible for mass deaths in India, is already seen in 19 other countries, including the United States. Recent reports also suggest that this option could potentially avoid the immune response, further increasing the burden on health systems. In addition, we do not yet know what protection the currently approved vaccines can provide against B.1.617, and it could jeopardize the effectiveness of global vaccination campaigns.
It is worrying that the emergence of this option also threatens vulnerable health systems in other low-resource countries, including India’s neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have high population densities, inadequate intensive care and ventilator capacity, and current vaccination rates against covid-19 is below 5%. Health care options are also severely limited in poorer countries in Africa and South America, which are still recovering from the uncontrolled spread of the Brazilian variant. If B.1.617 was able to inflict so much damage on India – a country with moderate health system capacity – it could be devastating in less equipped countries.
India’s hardships represent a sudden and sharp reversal. The country supplying more than 60% of vaccines worldwide had to lead efforts to produce covid-19 vaccines for many countries. But with the new option disrupting India’s health care system, it is unclear how long it will take to increase production capacity. Currently, India is running out of covid-19 vaccines, and the Serum Institute of India – the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer – is not yet in a position to increase production. Economists have already announced a forecast that resource-poor countries may not achieve broad covid-19 vaccination coverage by 2023. The current crisis will create even more obstacles to the global recovery from the pandemic.
The international community must now join forces and develop a collective approach to support India at this critical juncture, not only as a moral imperative, but also because the health of other countries’ populations and economies is at stake. Governments can take a number of mitigation measures.
First, the United States, which has lost nearly 600,000 citizens (more than any other country) to covid-19, must play a leading role in this. Although the administration of President Joe Biden has pledged to donate 60 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the latest figures indicate that the delivery could take up to two months. This process needs to be accelerated. The US should also spearhead efforts to share raw materials for covid-19 vaccines to help boost manufacturing capacity in India.
Second, the international community must join the United States in supporting the worldwide rejection of intellectual property (IP) associated with the supply of covid-19, including vaccines – a move that India and South Africa have long championed in the World Trade Organization. Since fewer than 2% of Indians are fully vaccinated, the urgency of refusal cannot be overstated. And, as Jeffrey D. Sachs recently explained, there are mechanisms to support pharmaceutical innovation while advancing vaccination efforts in India and elsewhere, including reimbursing intellectual property holders and limiting the scope and duration of any waivers.
To enhance the capacity of India’s health system, countries should also coordinate with the World Health Organization. China, which built the hospital in five days when the country saw a surge in infections earlier this year, can advise on capacity-building. Nigeria and the United States could provide technical support to convert large sports facilities into isolation wards for covid-19 patients to reduce the burden on hospitals.
In addition, countries that have partially recovered from the pandemic should also share oxygen concentrators and ventilators. And international medical professionals can pool their resources and develop protocols for the supply of essential materials, including oxygen, personal protective equipment, and medicines.
As some countries finally begin to emerge from the covid-19 crisis, policymakers should not forget the pandemic’s most important lesson: No country can be safe until every country is safe. While the crisis in India has highlighted the global nature of public health, it also provided an opportunity to once again demonstrate the benefits of international collaboration.
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