tharoor150_Erika SANTELICES  AFP) (Photo by ERIKA SANTELICESafpAFP via Getty Images_india vaccine export Erika Santelices/Safp/AFP via Getty Images

India’s Smart Vaccine Diplomacy

As countries scramble to secure supplies in the face of "vaccine apartheid," India has enhanced its global standing by making vaccines that are readily available in the world's poorest countries. This effort may one day help India secure recognition as a global power – with a permanent UN Security Council seat to go with it.

NEW DELHI – As countries scramble to secure COVID-19 vaccines, ugly expressions like “vaccine race” and “vaccine nationalism” have entered the global lexicon. But, at a time when global cooperation in sharing vaccines is minimal, and the World Health Organization’s vaccine-distribution plans are yet to get off the ground, India has taken a different tack, quietly pursuing “vaccine diplomacy.” Its “Vaccine Maitri” (Vaccine Friendship) campaign has shipped hundreds of thousands of Indian-made Covishield vaccines, manufactured under license from Oxford-AstraZeneca, to some 60 countries.

India is a global pharmaceutical powerhouse, manufacturing some 20% of all generic medicines and accounting for as much as 62% of global vaccine production, so it was quick off the mark when the pandemic struck. Before COVID-19 vaccines were developed, India supplied some 100 countries with hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol, and sent pharmaceuticals, test kits, and other equipment to around 90 countries. Later, even before the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved, Adar Poonawalla, the 40-year-old head of the privately-owned Serum Institute of India, audaciously decided to manufacture it – a billion-dollar gamble. When approvals came, SII was able to churn out millions of doses, making them available to the government both for domestic use and export.

Indian vaccines have been flown to most of the country’s neighbors, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal, and also farther afield, to the Seychelles, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Pacific Island, Caribbean, and African countries. Vaccines have helped mend strained relations with Bangladesh and cement friendly ties with the Maldives.