India's vaccine shortage could have been averted with some forward planning. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Vishal Bhatnagar

A full week after External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s extended four-day visit to the United States, India is still in the dark as to the Biden administration’s generosity to spare some of America’s surplus stockpiles of Covid-19 vaccines. 

We leap out of the famous Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot – of two tramps who waited by the roadside for Godot to come and set life right, but only to realize as dusk falls that He wasn’t coming after all. The tramps leave in disappointment as the curtain comes down on the stage. 

Jaishankar probably tied up the scheduling of the next Quad summit. But the Serum Institute of India (SII) has been quick to draw conclusions. It has sought the approval of the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) to tackle the vaccine crisis by taking up mass production of the Russian Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V in India. 

The SII, of course, has a massive production base for making vaccines and is already selling Covishield based on the so-called AstraZeneca vaccine (“Oxford Vaccine”), which is now the mainstay of immunization for Indians. 

This comes amid reports that Britain is once again asking AstraZeneca to meet new emergencies. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a tough leader and once he sets his eye on something, he ruthlessly pursues it even if it draws the blood of Europeans or Indians.

He bluntly admitted during a Zoom meeting with Conservative members of Parliament in March, “the reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.” 

The US and UK will never agree on a waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights. Whoever put this idea into the Indian calculus played tricks with the naivete of the country’s leadership.

India should have put the Sputnik V vaccine on its shopping list. Photo: AFP / Artur Widak / NurPhoto

Russia could be the key

Taking into account President Joe Biden’s timidity and rapacity and Johnson’s self-centered attitude, it is good that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is showing signs of taking India’s vaccine strategy out of the Anglo-American basket and turning to Russia. 

But all this didn’t have to happen in this haphazard way. After all, India is well aware of the great Soviet legacy in vaccine research and development. An alert government in New Delhi should have begun government-to-government discussions with Moscow the moment it came to know that the Russians were developing a vaccine. That is to say, almost a year’s time has been lost. 

All the pin-pricking today by Indian states that the central government should procure the vaccine from abroad, that it should be freely supplied, blah, blah, would have been avoidable. The Russians do not have a problem dealing directly with the Indian end-user, either.

Going one step further, New Delhi could have encouraged the state governments to act boldly to set up their own manufacturing base for Sputnik V. 

New Delhi could have even promoted such initiatives by providing funds. Indeed, this is not a matter of self-sufficiency alone. India also could have realized its dream to be the “world’s pharmacy.” But all this needed commitment and vision both at the central and state levels. 

On the contrary, India’s elite, besotted with America and Britain, instead had their eyes cast on the vaccines developed in those two countries. That is, despite the gory past of the Western pharmaceutical companies as bloodsuckers and predators in their propensity to make fortunes out of human disease, the Indian government put all its eggs in the Anglo-American basket.

This mishap is emblematic of the Indian elite’s pro-Western mindset. 

Come to think of it, even if Biden shares with India some of his extra vaccines, what does it add up to? Some 20 million doses? Jaishankar made this trans-Atlantic journey to arrange 10 million doses of vaccine for his country of 1.4 billion.

Employees prepare the Sputnik V vaccine for shipment abroad at the national center of epidemiology and microbiology named after Nikolay Gamaleya in Moscow. Photo: AFP / Vladimir Astapkovich / Sputnik

A partnership?

India could have taken to mass production of Sputnik V at least six months ago when the vaccine’s financial backers and developers announced in Moscow that they were keen to win global market share and touted the international price for Sputnik V as competitive. 

Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a sovereign wealth fund, disclosed at a November briefing that Russia (which has a limited production base) was keen to collaborate with foreign partners; that more than 50 countries had made requests for more than 1.2 billion doses; and, importantly, that the supplies for the global market would be produced by foreign partners.

He mentioned India among potential partners. 

Some enterprising Indian companies indeed made a beeline to Moscow and negotiated collaboration agreements. Production of Sputnik V may soon start, which is a good thing. But precious time has been lost even as India is racing to prepare for the third wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, which is already at the gates. 

Indeed, since Sputnik V was developed by the renowned state institution Gamaleya National Center and marketed by the RDIF (which comes directly under the Kremlin’s supervision), this topic should and could have been prioritized by Modi in a call with President Vladimir Putin.

What all this shows is the absence of a well-thought-out holistic strategy. Resources were never the problem; a lack of political will is. The Supreme Court has touched the core issue by demanding to know what the government has done with the 350 billion rupees (US$4.8 billion) earmarked for vaccines in the budget.

A medical worker prepares to inoculate a woman with a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Civil hospital in Amritsar on January 27,2021 Photo: AFP / Narinder Nanu

In strategic terms, the government is being exceedingly foolish in not having the big picture. The pandemic is not only a matter of public health but also threatens to destroy the Indian economy, with unthinkable consequences for future generations. 

The record daily infection cases and fatalities and lockdowns combine with an exasperatingly slow vaccination drive to disrupt industrial supply chains and undermine the country’s goal of becoming a manufacturing power. 

Until the beginning of this year, economists and international financial institutions still generally believed that India would become one of the fastest-growing economies in the post-pandemic era. But these projections are now up in the air.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.