May 25, 2020The IntersectiongeopoliticsCovid-19

India should prepare itself for realpolitik over a covid vaccine

Both the West and China are pouring billions of dollars into fast-tracking vaccines. India’s investment is minuscule in comparison.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

The first country to have full immunity to the coronavirus will enjoy a tremendous economic and geopolitical advantage, a once-in-a-century window of opportunity till other countries catch up. As much as the covid-19 pandemic is accepted as a challenge for all humanity, realism— that dismal but unfortunately accurate way of reading international relations—suggests that countries which acquire the vaccine first will be tempted to use this relative advantage to promote their national interests.

So it matters who gets to the vaccine first. India cannot afford to be a have-not, both for reasons of public health and to safeguard its strategic interests.

If there was ever a clear and present danger that confronted the human species as a whole, it is now. It should follow then that the world should set aside political differences and work together to defeat the virus. Vaccines and drugs should be made universally available as soon as they are invented. Yet, there is no sign that this would be the case.

At home, our domestic politics is as partisan as ever, communal tensions abound, and there is no attempt to build social harmony. On the international front, China has moved aggressively in Hong Kong as well as the South China Sea, and has escalated military tensions with India in the Himalayas. The US is pursuing a sharp, bipartisan competitive approach” to China, upping the tech war, and scuttling arms control arrangements with Russia. Far from bringing the world together, the pandemic has merely sharpened the world’s political fault lines. This is not a time when we can count on international cooperation. India should be prepared to contest the geopolitics of vaccines.

The rancorous proceedings of last week’s World Health Assembly highlight the international divide. China, the European Union and a number of other countries—including India—proposed a resolution that, among other things, seeks to create a patent pool and relax intellectual property issues to enable universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all… affordable essential health technologies”.

Xi Jinping promised to declare the vaccine a global public good” once it is available, hinting that China would share it with all countries. This posturing is understandable, given that Beijing is facing global criticism for having caused the pandemic. The US, on the other hand, dissociated itself from parts of the resolution that weakened intellectual property rights. Tempting as it is to make a moral judgement on their respective positions, it is clearly national interest—rather than moral sentiment—that is at play.

To be sure, immunization has tremendous positive externalities, as each vaccinated individual contributes to the protection of the whole world’s population. However, neither solemn speeches by heads of state, nor indignant outrage by well-meaning progressives changes the fact that a vaccine is not a public good. Being both excludable rivalrous, in economic terms, it is a private good. While universal, equitable and affordable access to one is highly desirable, it is inevitable that supply will, at least initially, be much lower than demand, and some way of allocating it will have to be found. This feeds the politics. Nationalists will demand first dibs for their own. Rich countries will try to buy all that is produced, or vaccine manufacturers. Others might nationalize production and impose export controls. Some might even use force to interdict shipments and divert them to their own ports.

Furthermore, even if altruism prevails and a vaccine is made universally available, there will still be a queue of countries waiting for supplies and queues of people within those countries. Who gets access, when, and on what terms would be both the cause and effect of international politics.

A country that acquires an effective vaccine has four broad options. One, it could freely license the technology and win the world’s gratitude. This will give countries with vaccine manufacturing bases a strong hand. Two, it could take a purely commercial route, with non-discriminatory differential pricing to make it affordable to lower-income countries. Three, it could use pricing, quotas and queueing as instruments of foreign policy, extracting concessions from both allies and adversaries. Four, it could deny the vaccine to its adversaries to the extent possible and exploit the advantages of being the sole coronavirus-immune country, though at great cost to its reputation.

India is a world leader in vaccine manufacturing, but lags in vaccine development. While it has six companies—or 30 attempts”—in the race for a vaccine, the world’s current front runners are Chinese, US and European companies. Pure manufacturing partnerships are desirable, but won’t secure us. If Beijing or Washington demand that their populations be served first, New Delhi will be put in a position where it would have to decide whether to allow contract obligations to prevail or provoke a powerful foreign government. Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical giant, finds itself caught between Washington and Paris after it announced that the US has the first right on the vaccine because of its investments.

The implication of all this is clear: India must accelerate efforts to develop an indigenous vaccine. We should be prepared to manufacture sufficient doses for our own population and export large volumes to the rest of the world.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

Both the West and China are pouring billions of dollars into fast-tracking vaccines. India’s investment is minuscule in comparison—an Atma-nirbhar Bharat needs substantial public investment in research and development grants to both private biotech firms and government research laboratories. No less important is the need to clear the decks for imports, logistics and clinical trials. Even if we do not win the race, equipping for it will not only improve global public health, but ensure that India’ geopolitical interests are safeguarded.

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