If a Reuters report is anything to go by, the Indian government has delayed its supply for the COVAX program as global health body World Health Organisation (WHO) continues to delay the process of granting emergency use authorization (EUA) to Covaxin, developed by India’s homegrown Hyderabad based Bharat Biotech.
Citing two sources, the report stated that WHO could not “cut corners” to approve a domestically developed vaccine. However, by delaying the vaccine supply, India has sent a subtle reciprocal message to WHO for its opaque working during the approval process which has unnecessarily stretched by months.
WHO and its dillydallying attitude
As reported by TFI, WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan on Sunday (October 17) took to Twitter to inform that the technical advisory group, entrusted with the task to EUA to Covaxin delayed its meeting and will now be sitting next week to decide the future course of action.
The technical advisory group will meet on Oct 26th to consider EUL for #Covaxin. @WHO has been working closely with @BharatBiotech to complete the dossier. Our goal is to have a broad portfolio of vaccines approved for emergency use & to expand access to populations everywhere https://t.co/lqQIyqItF9
It is pertinent to note that WHO and an independent group of experts were scheduled to meet earlier this month to conduct the risk/benefit assessment and come to a final decision on whether to grant approval to Covaxin or not. However, akin to the last few months, the global health body continued its dilly-dallying attitude and stalled the meeting.
WHOs dripping vaccine racism
Such has been the racist overtone in denying Covaxin the approval that despite submitting additional info regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, WHO has not been able to arrive at a decision.
Earlier this month, WHO had informed about Bharat Biotech submitting the data, “Covaxin manufacturer, Bharat Biotech, has been submitting data to WHO on a rolling basis & submitted additional info at WHO’s request on 27 September. WHO experts are currently reviewing this info & if it addresses all questions raised, WHO assessment will be finalized next week”
WHO & an independent group of experts are scheduled to meet next week to carry out the risk/benefit assessment and come to a final decision whether to grant Emergency Use Listing to Covaxin.#COVID19pic.twitter.com/jJyS1hiz44
Moreover, WHO claiming that it cannot cut corners to give authorization to any ‘domestically developed vaccine’ is sanctimonious hogwash. It is the same WHO which had granted emergency approval to the Chinese vaccine ‘Sinopharm’ in record 10 days after holding an ornamental meeting.
The decision to approve Sinopharm’s vaccine was taken by WHO’s technical advisory group, which met on April 26 to review the clinical data and manufacturing practices of the vaccine. By May 7, it was announced that Sinopharm had been granted the approval. Compare that to the approval process of Covaxin and one can understand where WHOs allegiances lie.
One user wrote, “@WHO handed over EUL to Sinopharm within 10 days of meeting despite ‘very low level of confidence’ against VOCs n patchy data. EUL awarded based on interim data itself yet #Covaxin, which outperformed others against all variants, needs scrutiny.”
And before the doomsayers say that India’s delay in supply is eventually hurting the poor nations, they should understand that the Modi government in October resumed its flagship Vaccine Maitri initiative to reduce supply inequity in poorer nations. COVAX program might be receiving delayed supplies but the Modi government is directly dealing with smaller, poor countries and delivering the vaccine. One million shots of Covaxin were sent to Iran earlier this month. The Himalayan nation of Nepal has also received a generous tranche of the vaccine.
On January 20, India had started external supplies under Vaccine Maitri in the form of grant-in-aid and commercial sales, and through COVAX program, which is led by Gavi, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. Through COVAX program initiative, more than 6.63 crore doses were exported. And yet the WHO is adamant about discriminating against India.
The world is desperate to break the duopoly of Pfizer and Moderna – the two mRNA vaccines. Reportedly, the Covid-19 death toll in the US this year is poised to surpass the number of fatalities in 2020.
The wave fuelled by the Delta variant is waning in the US, but daily infections are still hovering near 100,000 and more than 1,800 people are dying every day, on average. The US has only administered mRNA vaccines to its populace.
Moreover, the two mRNA vaccines are incredibly expensive which the poor, underdeveloped nations cannot afford. Covaxin is relatively cheaper and does not need the extreme logistical apparatus like the mRNA vaccines to be administered.
Moderna costs around $32 to $37 and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin costs merely 3$ to 5$. When we talk about compatibility, Covaxin is more storage-friendly than other vaccines. For instance, Pfizer needs to be kept in extremely cold temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius, the cost of which may go into billions, whereas Covaxin requires only 2-8 degrees Celsius cold chain which is much more viable for warm, developing and underdeveloped nations.
Pfizer and Moderna want to expand their market in poor countries. However, allowing Covaxin would dent their plans of market capitalization and thus, the two pharmaceutical companies developing the mRNA vaccines are trying their best to not allow Covaxin to come into the free market.
In a battle against an invisible enemy, one billionth in size to humans, WHO is still using its platform for political gains of few nations and greedy capitalistic pharma giants. It’s a travesty that a noble pursuit like COVAX program has to suffer, but the blame has to be squarely coped by none other than WHO.