T K Arun

The government would appear to be paralyzed at the edge of the fiscal cliff, stricken by a fear of heights. Do not count on it to fund vaccine production. At this time there is a need for concerted effort, there is a need to increase vaccine production immediately and there needs to be an acceptance that the financial burden the Indian Government might not be able to fund entirely. 

There is a time for elegies, and a time for holding to account. There is a time for recrimination, for counting the errors of omission and commission that have spread panic and despair, and filled the air with the foul smell of fear and makeshift pyres outside cremation grounds already tirelessly aglow. This is not that time. This is the time to wage an all-of-society battle against the pandemic.

Responsibility of All 

The government and the citizenry, medical professionals and the healthcare business, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies, scientists and their unsung assistants, universities and schools, teachers and students, religious leaders and celebrities all must rise to fulfill their civic responsibility. Entrepreneurs and industrialists have a special role to play. What can we do as individuals? It is not just hoarding drugs and oxygen cylinders that weaken the collective battle against the pandemic. Not acting like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car is the least anyone can do.

Anyone can do three kinds of things. Conduct themselves with Covid-appropriate caution such as wear masks, encourage others to wear masks, curb the natural instinct, as well as religious and cultural training, to congregate, and maintain physical distancing; be a member of the community, show empathy and solidarity. One must share resources with those in need, help others observe the rules of conduct that break the chain of infection, and support livelihoods around you. 

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Picture Curtesy: Times of India

We should not forget household help — pay them, whether they can come to work or not — small vendors, handymen; and, finally, perform the work that earns you your income as well the circumstances let you: that helps normalize the lives of others, whose work depends on your work getting done. Some of us have a special role to play.

I am not referring to doctors and nurses, paramedics and medical technicians, those who staff hospital administration and breathe the air wafting from the wards filled with patients and germs. They already perform their job, overworked and overlooked when it comes to recognition for their contribution to combating Covid. Those who can make or break the battle against Covid is Indian industry. 

Covid has to be defeated not just in one country but across the world. The more the virus is free to proliferate among unvaccinated masses, the more it will make mistakes while copying itself and produce new mutations, some of which would perish, while some others would survive only too well, emerging as new variants of the original, too strong for the antibodies created by the existing lot of vaccines, and raring to reinfect those vaccinated and traipsing along to a normal life.

Increase Indian Vaccine Production 

The only way out of the pandemic is to vaccinate enough of the global population to achieve herd immunity for humankind. That calls for making some 13 billion doses of vaccines, at a conservative estimate, for the world’s 7.8 billion people. The existing global capacity for vaccine production cannot do this fast enough to preclude the chain of mutations that turn the coronavirus disease endemic. That capacity has to be raised manifold. That capacity has to be raised manifold in India.

India alone has the combination of manpower, knowledge base and industrial capacity needed to raise the output of vaccines exponentially. China no longer has a young, college-age cohort large enough to be dragooned into a makeshift vaccine-making army. India has that youth bulge, and they would be happy to volunteer.

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Picture Curtesy: PAHO

They need that opportunity, that is all. It is for industry to create that opportunity. Making vaccines calls for knowledge, chemical ingredients, the specialized vats, vessels and other kit in which cultures are prepared and grow, vials, syringes and other delivery-related stuff. India was already the world’s largest producer of vaccines by volume, before Covid. These vaccine makers can list out the things they need to manufacture vaccines.

They can expand their capacity. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that have not forayed into vaccines can enter into vaccine production. But they will need the kit, ingredients, knowhow and licenses from vaccine developers. Indian industry used to reverse engineer all manner of drugs. They reverse­ engineered ventilators at the pandemic outset. They can reverse engineer the vaccine supply chain. Legal questions over intellectual property (IP) will come up. 

Government: An Enabler 

The least the government can do is to issue compulsory licenses for all the relevant IP, and insulate companies from legal tangles over their mission to save the world, in case engineering and pharma multinationals prove shameless enough to challenge this effort to increase vaccine production to the scale humanity cries out for.

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Picture Curtesy: BBC

The government would appear to be paralysed at the edge of the fiscal cliff, stricken by a fear of heights. Do not count on it to fund vaccine production. Invest in the new vaccine supply chain from a new capital pool, created from CSR funds, impact investment funds, charitable foundations, religious trusts, Vinod Khosla, whatever other sources come forward. Many will. The funds required are puny compared to the trillions of dollars of income at stake, in case of future pandemic shutdowns. If Indian industry rises to this challenge, it would both save the world and finally walk alone, leaving the guiding hand of the State.

First Published in The Economic Times View: Vaccine challenge and opportunity for India Inc on April 28, 2021.

Read another piece on COVID Vaccine by T K Arun titled Bold Vaccination Policy Needed in IMPRI Insights.

About the Author

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T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.