US lawmakers urge Biden to increase Covid-19 assistance to India

The White House has announced the US will deliver more than $100 million worth of supplies to India beginning this week including 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)

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, April 30, 2021 – Powerful, bipartisan members of Congress are urging the Biden administration to increase Covid-19 assistance to India as it grapples with a massive surge in coronavirus infections.

Co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus Mark Warner (Democrat-Virginia) and John Cornyn (Republican-Texas) dispatched a letter to President Joe Biden, Tuesday, calling on him to accelerate US efforts to support countries like India as they combat the deadly disease.

“As the United States strengthens its capacity to fight this virus with vastly expanded testing and widespread vaccination for Americans, we must ramp up our support to countries that are being particularly hard hit, such as India, through the provision of medical supplies and surplus vaccinations”, they wrote.

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

India set another unenviable world record Friday reporting 386,452 new cases and 3,498 deaths over a 24-hour period, though experts believe the numbers could be 20 to 30 times higher than the government data shows on account of poor infrastructure, human error and low testing levels. It was the ninth consecutive day of over 300,000 new infections. Total Covid-19 fatalities have crossed the 208,000 mark. In April alone, India has reported more than 6.6 million new cases, out of a cumulative total of 18.76 million, pushing its health-care system to the brink of collapse.

“We are watching with growing alarm the unprecedented surge of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which has overwhelmed hospitals and the overall health system in India”, said the Senate India Caucus co-chairs in their missive.

Impressing on the need to stop the deadly surge of infections in India, they warned, “This pandemic has devastated populations and nations across the globe, making very clear that the virus knows no borders. In order to control its spread globally, saving lives abroad and here at home, we must do our part to attack the virus where it is most devastating and active”.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Twitter that a US Air Force C-5M Super Galaxy and a C-17 Globemater III are en route to India from the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base in California. “They are carrying oxygen cylinders/regulators, rapid diagnostic kits, N95 masks, and pulse oximeters”, he disclosed thanking USAID for the supplies and everyone involved in the relief effort.

A day earlier, the White House informed in a press statement that the US will deliver more than $100 million worth of supplies to India over the course of a week including 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).

The US has re-directed its own order of Astra Zeneca manufacturing supplies to India which will allow the country to make over 20 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. 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 White House communique noted that “US state governments, private companies, non-governmental organizations, and thousands of Americans from across the country have mobilized to deliver vital oxygen, related equipment and essential supplies for Indian hospitals to support frontline health-care workers and the people of India most affected during the current outbreak”.

Congressman Ro Khanna (Democrat-California), Vice Chair of the House India Caucus, revealed on Twitter that caucus leaders spoke to Indian Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu who emphasized that India has the capacity to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines. In a teleconference call on Wednesday, the envoy told caucus leaders what India needs, along with 59 other countries including South Africa, is US support for the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver to increase global access to vaccines.

Earlier this month, in a letter to Biden, ten powerful senators urged the president to support TRIPS, a proposal jointly floated by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020 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”.

The proposal is currently in limbo due to the opposition of a handful of countries, most notably the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Japan.

“The United States has a leading role to play in supporting equitable vaccine access for all countries, and its time we stepped up”, senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement released to the press.

“The Biden administration made the right decision to expeditiously send raw vaccine materials, oxygen supplies, test kits, and other necessary resources to India, and to fund the expansion of their vaccine manufacturing capacity. As we continue to make major progress in our fight against Covid-19 in the US, I urge the administration to keep ramping up the provision of supplies and resources to countries hard hit by the pandemic. Conditions in India clearly warrant a response. India and the Indian people supported the United States during the early days of the pandemic here, and we must do the same as they face this unprecedented wave”, he said.

Menendez affirmed he is “deeply proud of the Indian-American community and other Americans” who have accelerated private efforts to provide much needed supplies and funding to India. Noting that “their work to help those in need represents the best of our country”, he pledged, “I commit to do whatever I can to support them”.

Referring to an announcement that the US will be sharing up to 60 million unused AstraZeneca vaccines with countries in need such as India, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (Democrat-Illinois) called it “a big move that will save lives provided we execute this plan quickly”.

The Indian-American lawmaker noted, in a statement, that “the AstraZeneca vaccine does not currently have FDA authorization in the US and will not be used to save lives here in the near future, so it only makes sense to share our stockpile to curb this deadly virus with countries like India who have recorded over one million Covid-19 cases in the last three days alone. I await details as to how quickly this plan can be implemented because time is of the essence”, he said.

A number of lawmakers took to Twitter to convey their support for India while insisting that the US must step up assistance.

“India is facing a humanitarian and public health crisis”, Warren noted. “We can’t let Covid run rampant in places that don’t have the tools they need to get everyone vaccinated. These giant drug companies need to do their part to get vaccines where they need to be”, she said about US pharmaceutical behemoths.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (Democrat-Washington) warned, “This is a global pandemic, and until we crush the virus everywhere, we cannot recover. India needs our help – and it’s our moral responsibility to rise to the challenge”, she asserted.

Noting that the “US India Caucus is supporting urgent need for oxygen and PPE” in India, Khanna cautioned, “It only takes one variant to break through our vaccine. It’s in our self-interest to prevent outbreaks in India or other parts of the world”, he said.

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