Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of even the most self-sufficient nations, and India has been no exception to this. So, instead of the current debate on whether the virus was man-made or natural, we need to focus on putting in place protective measures to overcome the current wave and anticipated future threats.
Ever since the onset of the pandemic, India has faced a crisis of enormous magnitude ~ from the hundreds of thousands who have sadly lost their lives, to our overburdened health care system, to the extreme shortage of oxygen and life-saving drugs.
The Union government has done its best to pool national and international resources and has been able to control the situation to a large extent but only after a colossal loss of life and a severe impact on the economy. Some more advanced countries have managed to restore normality by developing and implementing their vaccination programmes, thereby allowing them to succeed in vaccinating a large percentage of their populations.
Approximately 75 per cent of the world’s vaccine production is in the hands of some 10 countries. The wealthier countries have secured the first 80 per cent of the Covid vaccine production. Meanwhile, the response of the Indian authorities’ in sourcing vaccines has been lacking the speed and decisiveness needed.
India’s sheer numbers are a staggering challenge and thus far, by early June only 14 per cent of the population has received a jab. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had foreseen such a situation well in advance, which is evident from the fact that he introduced the concept of Atma Nirbhar Bharat ~ a self-reliant India. He did not imply that selfreliance meant making every item in India.
But it must manufacture critical items, on which the security of the country depends. While India depended on two local vaccine manufacturers, it did not factor in their production capacities which were unable to meet the entire nation’s demand. Furthermore, these companies have their commercial interests and commitments due to which they cannot reserve their entire supply for India.
Serum Institute of India (SII) does not have its own know-how for vaccine production, but has the production facilities, while Bharat-Biotech and ICMR have developed their vaccines from the inactivated virus but have limited production capacity. The Global Covax Programme was started in 2020 in an attempt to provide for the equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine.
However, its vaccine delivery schedule was thrown off course by the ferocity of India’s second surge, forcing the Indian government to push SII to cater to India’s needs. A country with a population of India’s size cannot allow itself to be in a position where it is over-reliant on third parties for critical ingredients.
Therefore, the time has come for us to become independent in our endeavors to fight the virus. This is why the vision of Atma Nirbhar Bharat is crucial for India, an emerging global power. Instead of waiting for the vaccines or raw materials to be made available and delivered from other countries, our own production should be in place. In addition, the establishment of a national centre of excellence in virology for fundamental research on viruses and their cure can place India in a powerful position to fight future epidemics.
Despite our PM sharing his vision when he first came to power, much remains to be achieved.
His motive behind Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan has been to place India in a self-reliant and independent position, free from the control and influence of any other country. Thus, we should be producing the critical items as our country’s security and livelihood depend on them. India’s latest Covid-19 outbreak spread with such speed and force throughout the country in part because we lacked the required resources in vaccines and basic vaccine ingredients to manage and control the virus. We had to seek help and rely on support from other countries to combat the virus.
This took time and the delay lost us too many lives. To ensure we do not suffer a similar fate in the future, we need to become far more self-reliant. When thinking about our current situation, the Pokhran-II tests come to mind.
Our Former Prime Minister, the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, undertook nuclear testing for research and peaceful purposes. Other countries imposed the strictest sanctions on India to block our research in nuclear energy and even impact the country’s economic growth. However, Indian scientists rose to the occasion to develop unique and high-tech products to harness nuclear energy to become a self-reliant nation. The present article aims to prompt a sense of self-esteem and belief so Indian scientists can rise to the occasion and create world-class modern and multipurpose research facilities in virology to develop the knowhow for the production of vaccines for different types of lethal viruses and the key ingredients they need.
The Prime Minister is a visionary who can provide decisive leadership.
The Government must set a target to complete the entire vaccine project as quickly as possible, with funding and a task force of the nation’s 100 top scientists in place to complete the work required.
This is a unique opportunity for India, and if we get this right, we will emerge as a world leader in pharmaceutical production.
The advantages of our production and research facilities should include, but not be limited to;
* Reduced cost owing to scale.
* Strengthening of research and development leading to better preparation against life-threatening diseases.
* Increasing the country’s ability to help its neighboring and friendly countries, thereby, strengthening its relations.
* The intellectual growth of the nation as a global power.
* Emergence of India as a world pharmaceutical producer.
The writer is Chairman, Expert Appraisal Committee, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India. He can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed are personal.