NEW DELHI(INDIA) – India is all set to export millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine to South Asian countries in the next few weeks. A move which has drawn praise from its neighbours and pushed back against China’s dominating presence in the region.
Free shipments of AstraZeneca’s vaccine have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. AstraZeneca is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest producer of vaccines.
With Myanmar and the Seychelles all set to receive free consignments, it has shown how India is using its strength as one of the world’s biggest makers of generic drugs to build friendships.
“The government of India has shown goodwill by providing the vaccine in grant. This is at the people’s level, it is the public who are suffering the most from COVID-19,” said Nepal’s Minister for Health and Population Hridayesh Tripathi.
The move comes at a time when India’s ties with Nepal have been strained by a territorial dispute. India is also concerned over China’s expanding political and economic influence in Nepal.
China, which had promised to help Nepal to deal with the pandemic, is waiting for Nepali clearance for its Sinopharm vaccine.
“We’ve asked them to submit more documents and information before we give them the approval,” said Santosh KC, spokesman for Nepal’s department of drug administration.
Bangladesh too has turned to India for urgent supplies of vaccine and on Thursday and will receive 2 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a gift from India. They were supposed to get 110,000 doses of vaccine from Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech for free, however, Bangladesh refused to contribute towards the development cost of the vaccine which led to a deadlock.
“India is making the AstraZeneca vaccine which makes all the difference. It can be stored and transported at normal refrigerated temperatures and countries like Bangladesh have that facility,” a Bangladesh health official said.
Over the years India has struggled to match the pace with which the Chinese invest in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. As part of its Belt and Road initiative, China has been building ports, roads and power stations in these countries.
Things changed as these countries grew desperate for vaccine inorder to revive their tourism-dependent economies. This gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government a way to claw back grounds, diplomats say.
Apart from giving away 12 million to 20 million shots to its neighbours in the first wave of assistance over the next three to four weeks, India is also helping with the training of health workers in some of these countries. Setting up of the infrastructure to administer the shots is also being taken care by India.
“It’s a well-crafted, calibrated series of actions you are seeing, they confirm the validity of our ‘neighbourhood first’ policy,” said a former Indian ambassador, Rajiv Bhatia. “It plays to our strengths in science and pharma, and this is our moment to shine.”