The Quad and its focus on vaccines should not end up as an exercise to address an immediate necessity and make it a virtuous one-way affair

The compulsions which led to the world turning to India to meet the large quantity of vaccines for low- and middle-income countries at affordable prices have found expression in the joint statement of the Quad leaders. The expression is also in the mandate to the Quad Vaccine Experts Group to build Indo-Pacific health security and pandemic preparedness. This is in some way a recognition of the Indian vaccine industry’s capabilities to deliver global social good.

However, this falls short of examining other areas of cooperation in biomedical and biopharmaceutical research, technology and trade. It is narrowly phrased to mention only vaccine supply to meet immediate global vaccine requirements, and that too from one Indian company, which has a partnership with a US multinational, which was also understood to be pushing for sovereign indemnity from the Indian government. Post-facto, this would mean that the partnership was forged between the two companies on commercial lines immediately following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

There are no statements to the effect that this cooperation will progress to the new areas mentioned, nor any working groups will be set up to examine this. This is very important because otherwise, long after the pandemic is over, the role of the Indian vaccine industry should not have been seen as one which supplied cheap vaccines, albeit of good quality.

The question that often arises is why multinational companies are not called upon to effectively meet the world’s pressing challenges in healthcare and make healthcare truly affordable. The response of multinational companies in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with affordable vaccines has been pathetic. They looked at only making humungous profits even though the entire development costs of COVID-19 vaccines were met by the western governments, the procurement of vaccines were paid for in advance, and all potential public liability risks were underwritten. In fact, even a part of the humungous profits made by the multinational companies can meet the funding shortfall of COVAX! It would not need the QUAD governments to promise additional funding.

And western governments have looked to meeting their own needs, far more than what they need. In contrast, it has been now left to a country like India to come forward to meet this pressing global challenge. India is doing it because our religion and philosophy teach us that there must be peace and prosperity for all. And without the Indian vaccine industry, where would the world be now? Also, considering that India has not still fully vaccinated its people and the move to open exports would mean that India would compromise on its own vaccination efforts to achieve herd immunity. This would be with considerable social costs for India. This aspect must not be lost on us and needs debate.

Western governments have the responsibility of not just funding vaccine supplies to low- and middle-income countries but to also allow flow of technology to countries like India, which can meet the requirements of affordable health interventions for the less fortunate people, and to facilitate flow of trade to meet the objective of a healthier world. The Quad and its focus on vaccines should not end up as an exercise to address an immediate necessity and make it a virtuous one-way affair.

On its part, India must push forward its case for deeper cooperation. For the pharmaceutical industry and the vaccine industry, this means facilitating research collaborations, technology partnerships, increasing trade in pharmaceutical supplies, mutual recognition of regulatory systems, and improving people competencies, so that in the end we can have a vibrant ecosystem in the life sciences sector. If this does not happen, the Quad push for vaccine cooperation will be just another exercise of addressing an immediate compulsion and which just ‘happened’.