FACED WITH a massive shortage of vaccines in a raging second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, the Government is sending External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to the US next week to meet top officials and vaccine manufacturers to firm up deals for supply.
President Joe Biden announced five days ago that the US will begin shipping 20 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-vaccines to needy countries by June-end, in addition to 60 million shots of AstraZeneca.
There is no clarity yet on the distribution details but India is likely to be one of the beneficiaries. AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is being manufactured and distributed in India as Covishield, has not yet been authorised for use in the US with several irregularities coming to the fore at the Baltimore plant where it is made along with the J&J vaccines.
Sources told The Indian Express that Jaishankar’s mission, during his visit from May 24-28, will be to “persuade the US to send as many vaccines as possible to India and its neighbours”. Recently, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen had reached out to Jaishankar for lobbying with the US in this regard. Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives have also been asking for vaccines.
In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs said: “In New York, he (Jaishankar) is expected to meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. In Washington DC, he will hold discussions with his counterpart US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He will also be meeting Cabinet members and senior officials of the administration dealing with the bilateral relationship.”
The External Affairs Minister will also engage in two interactions with business forums on economic and Covid-related cooperation between India and the US, the statement said.
Jaishankar, who met Blinken on the sidelines of the G-7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London early this month, had interacted with the US Global Task Force on Pandemic Relief recently over video-conferencing. He had discussed with CEOs their support for India’s efforts.
The groundwork for Jaishankar’s visit has been laid by India’s Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, who held a series of meetings with top US officials, including CDC director Rochelle Walensky, Chief Medical Advisor to the US President Dr Anthony Fauci, USAID administrator Samantha Power and US State Department Coordinator for Global Covid Response and Health Security Gayle Smith.
Over the last few weeks, Sandhu has also held meetings with vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and J&J Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky, and suppliers of raw material for medicines like Remdesivir and vaccines like Covishield.
On Thursday, the MEA’s official spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said that India is engaged with American entities for procurement of Covid vaccines and their possible manufacture in the country.
“We have, of course, noted the recent announcement by the US government of its intention to make some vaccines available to some other countries,” Bagchi said. “I would like to emphasise that all vaccines that may be procured from abroad would need to be as per our regulatory guidelines. I understand that the US has also indicated that any vaccines it sends abroad would be after obtaining FDA (Food and Drug Administration) clearance for product quality,” he said.
Recently, Charge D’Affaires of the US Embassy Daniel B Smith had said the US was looking at joint production of J&J’s Covid vaccines in India and ways to help manufacturers like Serum Institute of India boost production.
So far, the US government’s Covid assistance to India is estimated to be about $100 million, including six planeloads of life-saving supplies.