Pressure mounts on Biden administration to help India during catastrophic surge in coronavirus cases

US mulls response as lawmakers, health experts, business leaders, community activists raise clarion call to expedite aid to India

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, April 25, 2021 – As India struggles to cope with a devastating surge in coronavirus infections and fatalities, US lawmakers, health experts, business leaders and community activists are raising a clarion call for President Joe Biden to rush aid to the world’s second-most populous country, a strategic American ally.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (Democrat-Illinois) urged the administration to release doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries currently experiencing massive and deadly surges in the spread of Covid-19 such as India.

The Biden administration made its first and only foray into vaccine diplomacy in March when it announced it will loan 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico and another 1.5 million doses to Canada. That same month, the president invoked the Defense Production Act which prevents American companies from exporting raw materials for vaccine production so desperately needed by countries like India.

On Saturday, the world’s largest democracy broke an unenviable global record with 346,786 new cases of the coronavirus, endangering civilians of all regions and backgrounds and presenting a global public health and economic threat.

In a statement, Krishnamoorthi noted, “We are currently sitting on close to 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the US stockpile, a stockpile which we’re not using and which we’ve already opened to combat Covid-19 in Mexico and Canada. In order to curb the spread of the virus internationally and to protect public health and our international economy, we need to get these vaccines out the door now. I respectfully, but strongly, call on the Biden administration to release millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses to countries hardest-hit by the spread of Covid-19, including India, Argentina, and potentially others”, he said.

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Congresswoman Haley Stevens (Democrat-Michigan) stated,“My thoughts are with the people of India as they face an unprecedented and devastating surge in COVID-19 cases. I’m praying for the families experiencing unbelievable suffering right now and am urging coordination among the international community to help where possible to stop this horrific outbreak”.

Congressman Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York) tweeted, “Sending my thoughts and support to our friends in India fighting this terrible second wave of the #COVID19 pandemic”.

Earlier this month, in a letter to Biden, ten powerful senators urged the president to support a proposal jointly floated by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive intellectual property and patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines allowing countries to locally manufacture diagnostics, treatments and doses.

In their missive, the senators including Bernie Sanders (Democrat-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Democrat-Massachusetts) wrote, “Allowing countries to manufacture locally will expedite access to vaccines and treatment, prevent unnecessary deaths, expedite global vaccination efforts, and facilitate a stronger, faster economic recovery”.

On Friday, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (Democrat-Michigan) tweeted, “The Covid-19 crisis in India is a harsh reminder that the pandemic isn’t over until the whole world is safe”. President Biden “must support a patent waiver to ramp up global production now”, she added.

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At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “We’ve made vaccine cooperation a big priority including with our Quad partners – India is one of our Quad partners, of course — and discussing vaccine creation and distribution for the future”. She noted that the US has provided $4 billion to COVAX, a pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) which aims to provide innovative and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

“The United States offers our deepest sympathy to the people of India who are clearly suffering during this global pandemic and we are working closely with Indian officials at both political and experts’ level to identify ways to help address the crisis”, Psaki said.

She pointed out that from the earliest stages of the pandemic, the US has provided India with emergency relief supplies, medical consumables, pandemic training for state and local health officials, ventilators, including $1.4 billion in health assistance to help the country prepare for future pandemics and deal with the current one.

Psaki could not confirm if the US is assisting India with its widespread oxygen shortage. “We have provided, obviously, a range of funding over the course of time. It’s a huge, significant amount of funding. We are likely one of the world’s largest contributors to India in terms of, you know, their health needs. And it’s gone to a range of supplies and training”, she said responding to a question on the dire need for oxygen in India.

A day earlier, at the State Department, spokesperson Ned Price was asked if the US will lift a ban on the export of vaccine raw materials which are threatening to slow India’s vaccination drive. “This is a question for USTR”, he replied insisting that intellectual property and certain controls are within the purview of the office of the United States Trade Representative.

Price made it clear, “The United States, first and foremost, is engaged in an ambitious and effective and, so far, successful effort to vaccinate the American people. That campaign is well underway, and we’re doing that for a couple of reasons. Number one, we have a special responsibility to the American people. Number two, the American people, this country has been hit harder than any other country around the world – more than 550,000 deaths, tens of millions of infections in this country alone. But, there’s also a broader point here”, he said explaining that it is “not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated”.

Referring to a point repeatedly made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that as long as the virus is spreading anywhere, it is a threat to people everywhere, Price reasoned, “So, as long as the virus is spreading uncontrolled in this country, it can mutate and it can travel beyond our borders. That, in turn, poses a threat well beyond the United States”, he said.

Such words combined with a lack luster response from the White House have not gone down well in India or here.

“The US has more than enough vaccine for every American, but we are denying countries like India desperately needing support”, lamented senator Ed Markey (Democrat-Massachusetts) on Twitter. “We have the resources to help and other people need it, that makes it our moral obligation to do so”, he said.

Responding to a social media post by senator Tammy Duckworth (Democrat-Illinois), Chicago-based pathologist Dr. John Hart pleaded, “Please Senator – the United States must come to the aid of the people of India who are experiencing a horrific Covid19 outbreak! We are in a position to make a big difference with vaccine, testing kits and crucial medical supplies. We must help our ally in their time of need!”

In a viral tweet, Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said, “India is in the throes of a horrendous COVID surge. Horrendous. They are struggling to get more people vaccinated. We are sitting on 35-40 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine Americans will never use. Can we please give or lend them to India? Like may be now? It’ll help. A lot”.

In a press communique, Mukesh Aghi, president and CEO of US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), noted, “Fighting the pandemic effectively will require concerted action on all fronts. At this time the need is enormous and all resources have to be pooled”. The USISPF, he said, is working closely with the Indian government “to ensure seamless movement of critical equipment and supplies”, and the forum will soon be setting up a dedicated web portal to centralize the efforts of individuals and companies.

At the time of going to press, Secretary Blinken pledged US support for India. “Our hearts go out to the Indian people in the midst of the horrific COVID-19 outbreak. We are working closely with our partners in the Indian government and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India’s health care heroes”, he announced on Twitter.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval, Sunday, and expressed deep sympathy for people affected by the deadly second wave in India while affirming America’s solidarity with its ally. The officials resolved that the two countries with the greatest number of coronavirus cases in the world will continue to fight the pandemic together.

A statement released by the White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne read, “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need”.

Noting that “the United States is working around the clock”, the communique cited the resources and supplies that will immediately be made available for India such as: specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine; and supplies of therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

In addition, the US Development Finance Corporation will fund a substantial expansion of the manufacturing capability for Indian vaccine manufacturer BioE enabling it to ramp up production to at least one billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2022.

The US is also pursuing options to provide oxygen generation and related supplies on an urgent basis as mentioned in the statement.

Horne disclosed, “the United States is deploying an expert team of public health advisors from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and USAID to work in close collaboration with the US Embassy, India’s health ministries, and India’s Epidemic Intelligence Service staff. USAID will also quickly work with CDC to support and fast-track the mobilization of emergency resources available to India through the Global Fund”, she said.

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Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy responded to these efforts on social media. “Today, the US announced steps to support India during its unprecedented wave of Covid-19 infections. It has been painful to watch the suffering and loss that so many have endured. The only way to address a global pandemic is global cooperation and mutual support”, he said.

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