Battle for the better

India challenges the pandemic with all its might to beat the Covid-19 tsunami


Saman Haziq

Published: Sun 15 Aug 2021, 12:31 PM

India is fighting Covid-19 with all its might. This is how the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, described the country’s tryst with the pandemic that forayed into India last year in January. It was on January 30, 2020, when India recorded its first Covid-19 case in Kerala but it was not until March that the authorities realised the gravity of the situation and imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24. By then India had reported 536 cases and 10 deaths in a number of states, including Delhi, Telangana and Rajasthan.

India is now faced with a challenging path ahead of curbing the spread of the virus and slowing the rate of spreading infections. Realising that social distancing was the best way until the vaccines were rolled out, to keep the virus at bay, the Indian PM announced a three-week lockdown on March 24 last year. Over a billion people were confined to their homes as the country’s PM believed and said: “If you want to tame the spread of the virus…the only way to do it is to break the cycle of transmission.”

Under the new measures, all non-essential businesses were to be closed but hospitals and other medical facilities would continue to function as normal. Schools and universities were asked to remain shut and all public gatherings were banned. Flouting the new rules could lead to up to two years in prison and heavy fines.

Apart from announcing a $2 billion stimulus package to boost the country's health infrastructure, the country introduced a number of travel restrictions, quarantine measures and closure of non-essential services like gyms, cinemas and developed apps and websites to assist people with health services.

The first wave of Covid-19 swept India peaking in September 2020 with more than 93,000 cases per day on average in mid-September. However, by mid-February this year, the infection rate had steadily declined and India recorded an average of 11,000 cases a day. The seven-day average of daily deaths from the disease had slid to below 100. This was also attributed to partly the promising vaccination drive the country started in January 2021. However, the second wave soon struck and by mid-April, the country was averaging more than 100,000 cases a day.

In keeping with its reputation of being the ‘pharmacy of the world’ due to its strong pharmaceutical industry that has been supplying affordable medicines to the global markets, India began its mammoth vaccination efforts against the deadly virus in January and ramped its Covid-19 vaccine production amid a deadly second wave of infections that is now slowing down.

On January 3, India’s top drug regulator issued emergency approval for two vaccines for restricted use against Covid-19. These were Covishield and Covaxin. Covishield is a version of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine that was found to have an average efficacy of 70.4 per cent in a peer-reviewed study. It is an Indian version made by the world’s largest vaccines manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India (SII). The second vaccine, Covaxin, is India’s first home-produced vaccine against Covid-19 and was developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology.

Over the past few months, India has emerged as one of the major suppliers of Covid-19 vaccines. The country can play this role given its partnership with the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by the number of doses (the company claims it can produce 1.5 billion doses annually).

India’s biotech companies are also expected to produce 300 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. So far India has given more than 500 million doses of three approved vaccines — Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V.

Before Covid-19 hit India, Indian vaccine manufacturers like SII were supplying developing countries with vaccine doses via the World Health Organization's COVAX programme. However, as the pandemic spiralled out of control, Indian authorities were forced to cap exports.

Indian vaccine manufacturers including SII, Bharat Biotech, Panacea Biotec, Sanofi Shantha Biotechnics, Biological E, Hester Biosciences and Zydus Cadila have jointly installed capacity to manufacture 8.2 billion doses of different vaccines every year.

India is also only the third in the world to record more than 300,000 deaths — after the US and Brazil. The government aims to vaccinate all Indians by the end of this year, but the drive has been slow paced due to the shortage of doses and vaccine hesitancy. Till now around 5 per cent of the people have been fully vaccinated and 20 per cent have received one dose since the beginning of the drive in January.

Industry experts say that this capacity could be better adapted to manufacture more Covid-19 vaccines, which could supply India and the world with cheap doses.

In a previous interview, K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said that India has always been a leader when it comes to vaccines. He added that India should not lose sight of its potential, as Indian pharmaceutical companies can still quickly scale production and provide vital vaccines for the world.

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