Policewomen stand outside a vaccination center as inoculations stopped because of a shortage of supplies in Mumbai on April 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Punit Paranjpe

At a time when India is being hit most severely by the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States – its strategic partner – under President Joe Biden seems to have had trouble remembering India’s goodwill toward the American public during the presidency of Donald Trump. 

India has become the world’s new pandemic hotspot. The South Asian country, with the world’s largest vaccine-making capacity, has no choice but to stop major exports of vaccines in order to meet the domestic demand. 

It is against this backdrop that the Indian government and vaccine makers have asked the US repeatedly to lift the restrictions on its own exports of vaccine raw materials, which would greatly expedite India’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities in order to enhance its global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

Though the US government has just decided to lift the export ban on the essential raw materials, it is important to look into the fact that it was initially unwilling to do so. In fact, it can be assumed that due to amounting pressure domestically, and the lead taken by European countries, the US had no choice but to give in.

The US had continuously restricted the export of these vaccine ingredients to India in favor of its domestic manufacturers. Ironically, it is an Indian company that is supplying the US with a crucial and relatively rare ingredient needed for manufacturing its mRNA vaccines.

Moreover, the Biden administration has also been criticized by several sectors, including members and supporters of the Democratic Party, for not releasing surplus Covid-19 vaccines to India when the country is facing its worst-ever public health crisis.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tweeted that he and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had discussed issues pertaining to health cooperation. Jaishankar has also confirmed that the Indian government is attempting to address the raw-materials matter considering that it will be a critical component for India to meet its export commitments as well.

Jaishankar said, “I am pushing other countries, particularly some big countries, saying ‘Look, please keep the raw materials flowing for the vaccines to be made in India.'” He added: “Can I … go around the world and tell people ‘Guys, keep your supply chain flowing towards me … but I am not going to give you the vaccine?'”

Washington has invoked the Defense Production Act to preserve vaccine raw materials for the country’s own companies. This act allows the US to control supplies of key raw materials such as bags, filters, vials, glass, cell culture media, plastic tubing, stoppers and some reagents.  

During the previous administration, when the US was facing disastrous levels of Covid-19 cases, then-president Trump asked the Indian government to supply hydroxychloroquine for the American public. However, during that time, the Indian government had restricted exports of hydroxychloroquine, which had been touted as a potential Covid-19 treatment. 

Trump said he was unaware that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had restricted the export of the drug. He added, “If he doesn’t allow it to come out, that would be OK, but of course there may be retaliation, why wouldn’t that be?” 

Despite such comments from the US, India decided partially to lift the restrictions on the export of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and paracetamol. Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in April last year, “in view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would license paracetamol and HCQ in appropriate quantities to all our neighboring countries who are dependent on our capabilities.

“We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic. We would therefore discourage any speculation in this regard or any attempts to politicize the matter.”

India has shown its commitment to global humanitarian assistance through its proactive and selfless responses. Despite domestic policy restrictions in place, New Delhi managed to recalibrate them to aid countries that had been highly affected by the pandemic, including the US.

The Biden administration must reflect on this if it wishes to bank on ongoing cooperation with India in the health sector. 

Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is a fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC) and an international affairs author and researcher based in the Philippines. He is currently completing his master’s in international studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written extensively on issues of regional geopolitics and Indian foreign policy.