In race for the jab, Africa may look to India's new vaccine for Covid-19

Friday January 22 2021
Covid-19 vaccine.

Covid-19 vaccine. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Mr Anurag Srivastava, the Spokesman of the Indian External Affairs Ministry, Friday said millions of batches of an Indian Covid-19 vaccine have been dispatched to Mauritius and Seychelles.

Part of a programme known as "Neighbours First," the programme targets India's immediate allies in the region including Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But analysts think the distribution to the two African island nations, who have so far managed to keep cases low with stringent prevention measures, means existing distribution networks could benefit the entire mainland Africa in a shorter time.

"Certainly, India believes in global welfare," Pradeep Mehta, the Secretary-General of trade global policy advisory group CUTS told the Nation on Thursday.

"Being close to nearly all countries in Africa, and having supplied, inter alia, Aids treatment, India can and will supply Covid-19 vaccine without demur. It is already supplying the same to its neighbouring countries in South Asia."

India announced that it had received several requests for the supply of the vaccine from neighbours and key developing partner countries including Brazil.
According to the Indian External Affairs Ministry, the country supports "multilateral cooperation" to tame the pandemic and the "universal access to diagnostics, medicine and vaccines in order to promote safe and healthy tourism.

The doses distributed to the neighbours were said to be donations meant to help frontline workers in the countries.


India already produces six in every ten vaccines for diseases around the world including Polio, Yellow Fever and malaria, diseases common in Africa. But it entered the Covid-19 vaccine race behind the UK, US, Russia and China, who had already given approvals to their respective trials. India also produces most generic drugs consumed in Africa including ARTs which are cheaper than the original drugs.

Drug regulation authorities in India last week approved Covaxin made by Indian firm Bharat Biotech and Covishield, developed in the UK by Oxford University and AstraZeneca but produced by the Serum Institute of Indian.

So how will that be helpful to Africa? Experts think faster distribution channels will be crucial to taming the pandemic on a continent that has kept its infection and death rates lowest in the world.

Two weeks ago the African Union (AU) announced  an order of 270 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines after a deal with Serum Institute of India (SII).
In October 2020, India and South Africa had submitted a landmark proposal to the World Trade Organisation (WTO)  asking an ease on the rules that impose intellectual property (IP) barriers especially on new vaccines, tools and equipment.  
The WTO waiver will stand until most of the world has reached immunity.

Medical charity group, MSF, said in a statement that vaccine accessibility and distribution will be crucial in the pandemic fight.
"Everyone seems to agree that we can't apply business-as-usual principles here, where the highest bidders get to protect their people from this disease first, while the rest of the world is left behind," said Kate Elder, a Senior Vaccines Policy Advisor for MSF's Access Campaign last year as countries rallied for an alliance on Covid-19, which gave forth the Covax facility.

"Governments must ensure any future Covid-19 vaccines are sold at cost and universally accessible to all across the world."

When the HIV pandemic hit the world in the 90s, Big pharma hoarded the treatment drugs and their recipes, making it harder for the poor to access it. Will India's experience with generics and vaccines supply help this time?

Aly Khan Satchu, a lawyer and geopolitical analyst in Nairobi argued India may well be motivated to reach out to Africa because of the accompanying good optics that will come with it.

"A Covid-19 vaccine presents India with a significant geopolitical opening particularly vis a vis China which has established a chokehold [on Africa ]over India," he told the Nation, referring to Chinese penetration in Africa, especially in infrastructure financing.

"Russia has been making a return to Africa and the Summit in Sochi [in October 2019] was a part of that, winning the 'vaccine race' for her would not only be a geopolitical accelerator but also a silver bullet for India."

There are more lessons from India though. India launched a massive vaccination drive this month and as at January 20, the cumulative number of healthcare workers vaccinated against Covid-19 was 786,842 through 14,119 sessions.  With a population of 1.4 billion, officials have explained that the lower rate of vaccination is due to the need for officials to do awareness campaign and win over the hesitant ones.
Mihr  Thakar, a Kenyan analyst based in Mombasa believes that developing countries in Africa should not only take notes on how Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out in India and the rest of the world but also purpose to start making their own.
"The opportunity to set up for vaccine manufacturing in Africa is huge. It is perplexing why there hasn't been an impetus to invest in such enterprises," he said.
Mr Thakar says that it would be better for African states to make tactical investments in the manufacturing of vaccines even if it meant that the region will be a road less.
"The ready market for intra-Africa export provides some impetus," he said.
To facilitate faster penetration, however, the Indian government may need to iron out legal issues surrounding liability. The Serum Institute of India (SII) had earlier raised concerns on whether it would be made liable in case of adverse effects on those who take the vaccine.  Adar Poonawalla the CEO of SII has in the past raised concerns about the need to protect vaccine companies in case of liabilities related to adverse effects from the vaccine. As it is, both firms in India are subjected to the same conditions.
SII said it had already produced 11 million doses  for Indians, 53 million doses available in stocks and cleared for distribution and another 25 million meant for export will be ready by January 31, Poonawalla said.  Exports will be monitored by the External Affairs ministry, suggesting just how much foreign policy will influence distribution.