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View: Vaccine Maitri 2.0 gets a booster shot

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The India-US ‘Vaccine Maitri 2.0’ is off to a good start after the first detailed engagement under the Biden administration. S Jaishankar became ‘vaccine mantri’ for two days, discussing supply chain issues with Joe Biden’s core team so that India can ramp up production.

It’s not lost on US officials that public health is at the centre of current global politics. And if the Quad is to make a lasting impact, it must deliver solutions. They also understand that the choice facing large parts of the world right now is between vaccines made in India and those from China.

The intersection of themes — Covid relief efforts, Indo-Pacific, the Quad and China’s aggressions — was at the core of Jaishankar’s discussions. The Biden administration has now hosted all three Quad foreign ministers in person besides organising the first leaders’ (virtual) summit in March. The US embrace of the Quad is, and will be, consequential going forward.

Once satisfied, the Biden administration was fully on board; India, too, has become more vocal, as seen in Jaishankar’s public comments. The Quad today fills ‘a very important gap’ and it’s an expression of ‘convergence of interests of many countries’, he said.

In the ‘before’ times, India maintained a little social distance from the word in official statements, not knowing whether the Quad would transfer from Donald Trump to Biden. Not only did Biden adopt the Quad, but his advisers also see it as the main vehicle of arbitration in Asia’s power politics.

Notice another important development on the US-China front. Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator in the White House, announced the end of the age of engagement and start of the age of competition. Senior Biden officials have been eager to establish their ‘tough’ credentials on China, but were reluctant to be compared to Trump. They are inching towards a more strident position than the previews had us believe.

Moving to the two important announcements from Washington that came soon after Jaishankar’s visit: an initiative to share surplus vaccines and easing of restrictions on raw materials for

, Novavax and Sanofi that are currently under the Defence Production Act (DPA). The Serum Institute of India (SII) should see immediate benefits.

The easing of bottlenecks is hugely significant from India’s point of view. India has shared pages and pages of data with US officials on supply chain dynamics and shortages. It took a while for Indian officials to fully understand how vital the US was in terms of raw materials. But now it’s full steam ahead.

The US is expected to share 80 million vaccine doses by June-end through WHO’s Covax (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) and directly with countries hit the hardest, including India. But logistics of collecting vials stored in local pharmacies and health clinics around the country and putting them on planes are challenging. Since the initial batches being sent include Pfizer and Moderna, deep cold chains are required in the recipient country — from the airport to jabs in arms.

Last week, the White House held a ‘principals’ meeting’ on the question of sharing vaccines and who should get what. India came up in a big way for obvious reasons. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Campbell apparently spoke forcefully in favour of helping India. But not everyone was on board. Susan Rice, head of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, is understood to have argued against sending vaccines to India for reasons of domestic need.

The ‘yeas’ won the argument, and India will get vaccines from both the discretionary portion and through the six million doses that will go to Asia. Yes, the numbers are small. But Indian needs can only be met with domestic production. Adar Poonawalla must quit remote living and take charge of his operation on the ground.

Last word should be about Kamala Harris who didn’t dial India through the devastating second wave until last week, when she had good news to deliver on vaccines. Some observers had wondered why Jaishankar hadn’t sought a meeting with the first Indian-origin VP. But as a wise man told me, ‘It’s best not to push because Harris is still deciding how ‘Indian’ she wants to be.’ She will arrive at her comfort level in time on all matters Indian.

For the record, her plate is full with two of the most radioactive issues that Biden has assigned her — fixing illegal immigration and protecting voting rights in the face of scores of bills at the state level that make it harder to vote, especially for African Americans. Success or failure will impact Harris’ political future. Perhaps it’s not time yet to play ‘Indian-Indian’ and complicate her life further.

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