Mission mode, all-hands-on-deck, round-the-clock are among terms being used to describe frenetic action in Washington to salvage both its reputation — damaged by its initial slow response — and the situation in India, which is itself being accused of a sloppy response to the pandemic.
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While there is immediate piecemeal sourcing and urgent facilitation of life-saving resources such as oxygen, personnel protection equipment (PPE), rapid diagnostic test kids and therapeutics such as Remdesivir, the Biden administration is also embarking on the larger and longer goal of building India’s capacity — because US supplies can do only so much given the scale of problem in India due to its massive population and a runaway pandemic.
At the heart of the problem and the solution is vaccines — of which India has been a major producer and also a committed supplier to the world, much of it cornered by wealthy nations. But given that even the 60 million AstraZeneca vaccines Washington is sitting on (and is not using because it has a three other vaccines it considers more reliable) is not sufficient to address India’s problem, the Biden administration is trying to free vaccines from the clutches of patent protection.On Monday, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai held a virtual meeting with AstraZeneca and Pfizer leadership to discuss among other things a proposed waiver to provisions of the WTO‘s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the Covid-19 pandemic amid intense pressure from many lawmakers and activists to address predatory patent protection.
The outcome of the talks is not clear just yet, but there is tremendous pressure on the White House to extract a waiver to address the Covid situation.
More than a dozen US lawmakers have written to President Biden, urging him to publicly support a temporary patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines that would allow countries to manufacture treatments locally, and expediting the global vaccination effort to save lives.
“Your administration has the opportunity to reverse the damage done by the Trump administration to our nation’s global reputation and restore America’s public health leadership on the world stage,” the senators wrote, adding, “To bring the pandemic to its quickest end and save the lives of Americans and people around the world, we ask that you prioritise people over pharmaceutical company profits by reversing the Trump position and announcing US support for the WTO TRIPS waiver.”
Significantly, the Indian readout of the telephone conversation between Prime Minister Modi and President Biden mentioned the IP waiver issue, while the White House readout did not.
Amid a fervid debate on the matter in a US political system that feeds of the pharma lobby, the Biden administration has pledged that it will do the next best thing it can do immediately — rush oxygen, therapeutics. PPE and personnel to help.
Officials said a CDC strike team is being dispatched to India to work with their counterparts in a number of areas, including laboratory services; surveillance and epidemiology; bioinformatics for sequencing and modelling of the disease; infection, prevention, and control; vaccines rollout; and risk communication.
The broad spectrum effort is indicative of the danger India’s surge poses to rest of the world at a time the US itself has just about gotten a measure of the pandemic after being the country most affected by it. The rolling weekly average of Covid-19 cases in the U.S has dropped to just above 50,000 after soaring close to 300,000 at its peak, even as India which had nearly gained control of it has now seen 300,000 plus cases for six days running.
“This isn’t very complicated. India is an ally and a democracy in a vital region. New strains are likely to emerge the longer we wait. Some could be vaccine resistant and/or deadlier. Millions could die. America should send help for moral, political, and geostrategic reasons ASAP,” political analyst Jonah Goldberg warned in a tweet, echoing the concern of many public intellectuals, scientists, and even business and industry.
While committing its 60 million AstraZeneca stockpile to other countries, US officials did not say how much of it would be directed to India, whose requirement will be vast and can best be met domestically if Washington loosens control over raw material and IP issues. Another fear in Washington is supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine that it has itself not cleared for domestic use will be seen as a palming off unused vaccines to other countries. Although officials say it is deemed safe for use, the FDA is yet to officially certify it.