The coronavirus crisis in India is worsening. This week, it became the second country to record more than 20 million COVID-19 cases; only the United States has more.
But while the U.S. seems to be getting a grip on the pandemic, India’s situation is deteriorating and the country’s health system teeters on the brink of collapse. India needs help and all countries that can do something, must do something.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), India accounted for nearly half the COVID-19 cases reported worldwide last week. Daily infections have again topped 400,000, and the seven-day average on Wednesday exceeded 385,000 cases. The country has had more than 314,000 new cases every day since April 21.
The WHO estimates that 25% of global deaths last week occurred in India, a death toll that exceeded 3,700 lives per day. Most worrying is the belief among health care experts that the Indian numbers are vastly understated, and the actual numbers of dead and infected could be five to 10 times higher.
The mounting numbers of sick have swamped hospitals, which have run out of beds and patients wait for hours to be admitted — if lucky — to facilities that lack oxygen. Morgues and crematoriums are overwhelmed.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves considerable blame for the second wave of infections. While a mutated version of the coronavirus that is more easily transmitted is ravaging the country, most experts blame political decisions for the crisis.
The government allowed large social gatherings, such as political rallies and religious events, to take place which are now thought to have been super-spreader events. Widespread disregard for social distancing and mask wearing has facilitated transmission. There has also been a sharp decline in vaccinations, mostly because of production issues — and as a result some of the country’s largest cities are reporting vaccine shortages. Only about 9% of India’s 1.4 billion people have received a vaccine dose since January.
The world has recognized the danger of a COVID-19 surge in the world’s second most populous country and has responded with speed and concrete deliverables. More than 40 countries have offered support.
The United States pledged $100 million worth of medical products including 1,100 oxygen cylinders, 20,000 doses of the antiviral drug remdesivir and raw materials from which 20 million doses of coronavirus vaccine can be made. Russia has signed deals with Indian companies to manufacture 850 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine. European governments have promised respirators, masks, liquid oxygen and oxygen concentrators. China has exported around 26,000 ventilators and oxygen concentrators to India. Even Pakistan has offered help.
At first, Japan pledged 600 ventilators and oxygen concentrators, an offer that reflects the difficulties that this country is encountering as it tries to deal with the COVID-19 crisis at home. But at the G7 foreign ministers meeting in London, held earlier this week, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi upped the offer to ¥5.5 billion ($50 million) in grant-in-aid, in addition to those supplies.
Vaccine shortages in one of the world’s major manufacturers of the COVID vaccine testify to the difficulties in countering the pandemic. According to World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, just 0.3% of the over 1 billion doses administered worldwide have been given in poor nations.
For some, the inequity reflects the intellectual property protection given vaccine developers. Emerging economies and health care advocates have called for a temporary exemption to the patent rules so that countries can produce all the vaccines they need.
Last year, the U.S. blocked an effort by the World Trade Organization to do so. Modi asked U.S. President Joe Biden to support a temporary waiver last month; this week the U.S. announced that it would back that initiative. Noting that “the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the American government was prepared to discuss a waiver of intellectual property protections for the duration of the pandemic. Given Germany’s reported opposition to such a deal, an agreement cannot be taken for granted.
Vaccine makers have pushed back, warning that the move would undermine future research, both by exposing proprietary techniques and by depriving pharmaceutical companies of money that they would use to develop vaccines for future diseases. Given the millions of dollars that they are already making and the misery that can be prevented, such thinking seems immoral.
A more powerful objection is that access to vaccine formulas is not the problem. Manufacturing bottlenecks — capacity, scarcity of raw materials and shortages of ingredients — are the real issue. The theoretical right to manufacture a vaccine means nothing if local companies do not have facilities to produce the drug — and in some cases entire factories must be built, a process that will take years.
Some of the vaccines require special technology that some established drug makers do not have. The production problems encountered by U.S. manufacturers are proof that this is not an abstract concern and that even the most experienced drug makers have had difficulty with their quality controls.
India has the world’s largest capacity to produce vaccines. Its capacity has been hampered by a shortage of raw materials and a fire at one of the vaccine manufacturers. For it, like many other countries, waiving intellectual property rights to the vaccine is no panacea. But it would be helpful. The negotiations will take time — an expeditious conclusion is a must. The COVID-19 pandemic is proof that we cannot pretend that a problem beyond our shores is not our problem. Viruses are indifferent to borders and politics. We should be, too.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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