Shruti Rajagopalan is right, helping India isn’t just about India.
India’s role in the global pandemic is unique. The developing world is counting on affordable Indian vaccine-makers such as Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd. for their supplies. With India now reserving virtually all its doses for domestic use, those countries will have to wait even longer to be vaccinated. And if the pandemic disrupts production at Indian pharmaceutical companies, it could affect crucial non-Covid medications as well. Half the world’s children have been vaccinated by Serum Institute.
The Biden administration can do two things to help. The first is to ease restrictions on critical exports, imposed under the Defense Production Act to prioritize the needs of U.S. companies.
Vaccine production requires very specific, medically approved inputs, which are difficult to substitute quickly in the middle of a pandemic. Currently, U.S. producers must secure permission before exporting such things as special sterile filters, disposable bags for cell cultures, cell culture media and single-use tubing. The embargo has led to major bottlenecks. Serum Institute says that without those inputs, it may not be able to deliver the 160 million vaccine doses it had planned to produce next month.
Second, the U.S. should immediately share doses from its own supply of Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
I have three things to add. First, I have already noted the foreign policy implications which weigh strongly in favor of taking a more active role in the world pandemic.
Second, India should move immediately to delay the second dose of the AZ vaccine to 12 weeks. The federal government has already recommended a 6-8 week schedule, as this improves efficiency of the AstraZeneca (Covishield) vaccine, but many people so fear shortages that they are getting a less-effective second dose at four weeks. An enforced 12 week schedule would improve efficiency and might also reassure people that there will be supplies in 12 weeks.
Third, and this is more speculative, but the rising pandemic in India provides an opportunity to test fractional dosing of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in a real world setting. There is currently a small-scale Belgian trial testing Moderna at 50 mcg and Pfizer at 20 mcg. We already have reasonable information that 50 mcg of Moderna induces a robust immune response in adults. The mRNA vaccines wouldn’t work in all of India but would be fine in the cities and perhaps there is an opportunity for an exchange similar to what Israel promised to get early supplies.