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Thursday, September 23, 2021

British health journalist writes how Biden admin is still denying vaccine raw materials to Bharat

On 16 April, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla had tweeted requesting the US President to ‘lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up’. Around the same time, a report had appeared stating how SII production lines in Bharat, making around 160 million doses of Covid vaccine a month, will come to a halt in the coming weeks unless America supplies critical items.

In March, the WHO chief had called on countries with enough vaccines to cover their populations “many times over” to make immediate donations of vaccines, and to drop restrictions on the export of vital components and supplies needed urgently to ramp up production of vaccines across the world. Apart from putting an ambargo on vaccine raw materials, US has stockpiled millions of doses of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine, despite it not being authorized for use in the US yet.

A US government spokesperson when questioned about the embargo, said “it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated first”! So, after much criticism, on 25 April, the US said it would ‘immediately provide raw materials for vaccines’. On 5 May, we were told that the US had shipped supplies to enable the manufacturing of 20 million doses of the Covishield vaccine – as against 160 million doses per month capacity of SII’s production line! However, just today  the newly arrived charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Delhi told journalists that global supply chain for vaccines is facing ‘challenges’.

Clearly, there is a lot of obfuscation and subterfuge going on here, with some straight-talking analysts saying this is the liberal Biden’s administration’s way of turning the screws on the ‘right-wing’ Modi government. Others have pointed out to the close links that Big Pharma, such as Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer Pfizer, have with the Biden team.

Apart from producing Covishield, SII had also signed a contract last year with US company Novavax to produce ~ 1 billion doses of the latter’s Covid-19 vaccine Covavax in 2021. This vaccine is also being produced in UK and other parts of the world. Now, Novavax has experienced delays in both production and authorization. It does not expect to seek regulatory authorization for the vaccine in US, UK and Europe until the third quarter of 2021, and does not expect to hit its production target of 150 million shots per month until the fourth quarter of 2021.

Natasha Loder, the Health Policy Editor of The Economist magazine, has put out a twitter thread, which further highlights how US government actions are delaying SII’s production of both Covishield and Covavax, low-cost vaccines urgently needed in both Bharat and the rest of the world. HinduPost comments have been added in parentheses (), and certain phrases have been emphasized:

So finally I have an answer to what has happened to Novavax production in Bharat, thanks to the difficulty getting raw materials out of the US. The news was worse than I expected. There is, says Stan Erck (Novavax CEO) of that firm, a “global raw material supply difficulty”.

Novavax lines in Bharat and the UK have been affected by shortages of items needed from the US. Start with the UK which has been manufacturing this vaccine for a while which is not yet approved. Novavax is struggling with 3 key things: biobags, media, and filters.

Novavax is doing its best to operate its lines at “full cadence”. But when they have missing items, the lines have to shut down. For the UK they are “weeks” behind where they would have been had they had all the raw materials needed.

Luckily, Britain is doing fine for vaccine but not so true in Bharat, though. Here things are much grimmer. Some will recall that on April 25th the White House said that it would send raw materials to make vaccines to Bharat.

It was said that this move was to support the production of the AZ vaccine in Bharat (Covishield). Nothing was said about the Novavax line. It seems pretty clear that the answer is no — the US did not send enough materials to fix the problems on that line.

According to Stan Erck, the Serum Institute of India did not have enough supplies to keep both lines going at full capacity. It kept the AZ line going at maximum production, and the Novavax line at a smaller scale.

That would support this article that suggests the Novavax line is running at 1/3 of capacity. The bottom line is that the firm has had to move its production forecasts back a *whole quarter*.

That vaccine is important for Bharat, where people are dying at a rate of at least 3,500 a day, and for Covax (the global vaccine alliance to provide vaccines to poor countries).

More broadly it raises the question of how other new vaccine entrants (J&J, Curevac) are managing to obtain the ingredients they need to manufacture. If we do not resolve these issues quickly how much this will dent the intention to produce 10-14bn doses?

The US argues the DPA isn’t causing these problems, there are just shortages of these items. But firms say the DPA slows down exports, causes compensatory overstocking by other companies, and it disrupts supply chains.

And it isn’t fair. The US has plenty of vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine relies on supplies from 19 different countries. What if those 19 countries decided they needed their own DPA in perpetuity? How would that work?

Firms also say things are worse under the current administration, not better. I have also heard of an un-named firm that had active substance in Europe, shipped to the US, and then were unable to get it out again. They had to improvise and find a new supply chain.

The US needs to become part of the solution, and stop being part of the problem. When it moves to donate vaccine or support the global supply chains, other countries will follow and lives will be saved as a result.

Past actions of the Biden administration do not inspire much confidence that Loder’s words will be heeded. But this episode should serve as a serious reality check to Hindu-Americans who had voted for Biden, being swept away by liberal buzzwords. It also should be a learning that Bharat has no allies, least of all the America-led West. All we have are partners, with whom our interests can sometimes coincide.

Commentators in Bharat who are clamouring for the government to accede to every demand of costlier American vaccines like Pfizer would be better served putting pressure on the US government to allow export of vaccine raw materials, which are indeed surplus to US requirements.


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