London: A world expert on vaccines believes that India should ask Asian rival and neighbour China for help to meet a critical shortage of COVID-19 vaccines. India is a global supplier of vaccines and New Delhi has committed more funds to increase production, but national demand far outstrips supply.
Dr Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI), told The Wire that both Delhi and Beijing would benefit from recalling how the United States and Soviet Union set aside their differences during the Cold War to successfully eradicate small pox and polio.
During an exclusive interview arranged with the help of London-based medical think-tank Sapien Care, Kim urged Delhi and Beijing to collaborate to distribute more COVID-19 vaccines to save lives.
“We know the vaccines are safe and efficacious, the WHO has said that. They haven’t issued formal approvals yet, but hopefully, based on the data presented, they will approve and that will be an additional stamp of approval other than the one from the Chinese regulatory authority,” said Hawaii-born Kim who served with the US military for 22 years.
Dr Jerome Kim. Photo: Twitter/Jerome Kim
“This is an opportunity for neighbour to help neighbour. I think that would be a beneficial thing because not only would it be important for control of the disease, but it would also be important as an opportunity for the two countries to bridge traditional enmity. In the end, this is a problem that isn’t going to get better until COVID-19 is controlled worldwide.”
Asked if India would find it embarrassing to collaborate with China, that currently has a close to zero rate of infection, Kim responded, “Would that be embarrassing for India, or would it be more embarrassing to have 300,000 infections per day and not be able to vaccinate effectively?”
Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “The Chinese government and people firmly support the Indian government and people in fighting the coronavirus. China is ready to provide support and help according to India’s needs.” He did not clarify whether the offer of help would extend to the supply of vaccines.
India’s other traditional foe, Pakistan, has also offered to help Delhi fight COVID-19. “As a gesture of solidarity with the people of India…Pakistan has offered to provide relief support..including ventilators, BiPAP, digital x-ray machines, PPE’s and related items,” said a weekend statement issued by the Pakistani foreign ministry in Islamabad.
Bilateral ties between India and China have teetered on a see-saw for more than 60 years following one war and repeated military skirmishes. For its part, and despite the uneasy relationship, Delhi last February lifted a ban on exporting PPE equipment to China to help Beijing’s fight against COVID-19.
Kim’s suggestion – and China’s olive branch – come in the wake of India’s worsening crisis, with under-equipped hospitals battling to save the lives of patients dying from shortages of oxygen. On Monday (April 26), India reported more than 350,000 fresh infections in 24 hours. According to one estimate, the rate of daily infections could rise to between 800,000 and one million by the middle of next month.
Surplus vaccines are currently available only in the US and China, and Washington has offered its excess supplies only to neighbours Mexico and Canada. On Sunday, however, the Biden administration agreed to allow the export of vaccine components – hitherto banned – as an exception for India. Chinese vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm are available in Pakistan and 29 other countries, although the efficacy of Sinovac has been questioned in one Brazilian trial. Both vaccines are said to be less effective than the jabs offered by the likes of Pfizer, Moderna and Russia’s Sputnik V.
Last week, the director of the WHO’s immunisation department announced that review meetings were planned imminently to discuss both Sinopharm and Sinovac. “We are pleased that we are at a point that these review meetings can be scheduled and we are looking forward to…the formal review meeting of the [emergency licensing] process,” Kate O’Brien said. “The WHO has been in constant touch with the two companies to prepare for the official review meeting.”
“Vaccines are in short supply, everyone understands that. Countries are using up the vaccines they have and are demanding more and faster. For India, the size of the population and magnitude of the problem are particular issues,” said Kim.
“Imagine an outbreak like this as a forest fire. The first thing you need is to establish some form of containment, evacuate people, try to limit it. Then you start the active things to try and reduce it and for COVID-19 we know that lockdowns do work, but they only work as a formal mechanism if you follow it up with the important things, if you seriously impose distance and hygiene and masks, if you isolate people who are infected to keep them from spreading the disease to others.
“For India, my understanding is that there are particular areas like Maharashtra that are much more severely affected. So you would impose a lockdown in parts of the country that are more severely affected in order to buy some time, in order to get more vaccines, to get more ventilators from different countries.”
Asked if COVID-19 could have escaped as a rogue virus manufactured at Chinese government-controlled laboratories in Wuhan, he replied, “It’s highly unlikely. The evidence would suggest it does not occur as a man-made pathogen. The reason is that when we introduce changes to a virus, we have to do it through using a set of tools and those tools leave fingerprints. We don’t see any evidence of that.
“We also know the virus exists in an earlier form in a natural state in certain mammals like bats, possibly transitioned through another animal to humans. Coronaviruses are famous for doing that. The original SARS virus came from civets. MERS, Middle East Respiratatory Coronavirus came from bats to camels to humans and then this coronavirus.
“It did occur as a transmission in one of the wild animal farms that existed in China until just about the time of the Pandemic. Right now people are analysing the data WHO is collecting.”
Shyam Bhatia is the former Diplomatic Editor of The Observer (London) and author of Bullets and Bylines: From the Frontlines of Kabul, Delhi, Damascus and Beyond, published by Speaking Tiger.