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'America First' or vaccine liberalism? Biden's big challenge as calls grow for vaccine exports to India

Biden is now under massive pressure both internally and globally to reverse policies

modi biden (File) PM Narendra Modi (left) with Joe Biden | Twitter handle of Narendra Modi

Amid a particularly virulent surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had sought global help. "Will strive to ensure that our supply chains are as smooth as possible in a difficult global situation. The world must support India, as India helps the world," he said in a tweet. This came after Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest maker of vaccines and a critical supplier of the UN-backed COVAX facility, asked US President Joe Biden on Twitter to lift the US embargo on exporting raw materials needed to make the jabs. India is battling the world's fastest pace of spreading infections. The Modi-led Centre has blocked vaccine exports for several months to better meet needs at home, exacerbating the difficulty of poor countries to access vaccine.

The US is now under massive pressure both internally and globally to remove ban on export of COVID-19 vaccines and life-saving medicines, made worse by a senior State Department official's statement that "Biden administration's first obligation is to take care of the requirements of the American people". The White House has since walked back the line, saying the US is working closely with India to help the country during the disaster. Latest, on Sunday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released a statement: "Our hearts go out to Indian people in the midst of the horrific COVID outbreak. We are working closely with our partners in the Indian govt, and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India's healthcare heroes."

But the challenge for Biden remains: Balancing the post-Trump, internal political frailties, and his own pledges to restore American leadership on the world stage and prove to wary nations that the US is a reliable partner after years of retrenchment during the previous administration. Biden's indecision could cost the country big. Globals rivals like China have already condemned the US actions, decrying vaccine nationalism and offering helping hands to countries across the globe. Most recently, it ensured a 1,50,000-strong vaccine shipment to virus-ravaged Damascus. 

Biden's vaccine challenge

In the United States, more than one-fourth of the population nearly 90 million people has been fully vaccinated and supplies are so robust that some states are turning down planned shipments from the federal government. This stark access gap is prompting increased calls across the world for the US to start shipping vaccine supplies to poorer countries. And, the Biden administration is vaccillating. 

Biden, who took office in January as the virus was raging in the US, has responded cautiously to calls for help from abroad. He has focused the bulk of his administration's vaccinations efforts at home. He kept in place an agreement struck by the Trump administration requiring drugmakers that got US aid in developing or expanding vaccine manufacturing to sell their first doses produced in the country to the US government. The US has also used the Defense Production Act to secure vital supplies for the production of vaccine, a move that has blocked the export of some supplies outside the country.

White House aides have, according to multiple reports, argued that Biden's cautious approach to promises around vaccine supply and delivery was validated in the wake of manufacturing issues with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the subsequent safety pause to investigate a handful of reported blood clots. In addition, they need to maintain reserves in the US to vaccinate teenagers and younger children once safety studies for those age groups are completed and if booster shots should be required later.

The White House is aware that the rest of the world is watching. Last month, the US shared 4 million vaccine doses with neighboring Canada and Mexico, and this past week, Biden said those countries would be targets for additional supplies. He also said countries in Central America could receive US vaccination help, though officials have not detailed any specific plans.

The lack of US vaccine assistance around the world has created opportunities for China and Russia, which have promised millions of doses of domestically produced shots to other countries, though there have been production delays that have hampered the delivery of some supplies. China's foreign minister Wang Yi said this month that China opposes vaccine nationalism and that vaccines should become a global public good.

The US has also faced criticism that it is not only hoarding its own stockpiles, but also blocking other countries from accessing vaccines, including through its use of the law that gives Washington broad authority to direct private companies to meet the needs of the national defense. 

The US Department of Health and Human Services' 2020 annual report also raised eyebrows for a section titled 'Combating malign influences in the Americas', which said the US had convinced Brazil to not buy the Russian shot. The US Embassy denied exerting any pressure regarding vaccines approved by Brazil's health regulator, which has not yet signed off on Sputnik V. Since March 13, Brazil has been trying to negotiate supply of US surplus vaccines for itself, according to the foreign ministry.

 Pressure on Biden

The powerful US Chamber urged Biden to release the millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses in storage—as well as other life-saving support—for shipment to India, Brazil, and other nations hard-hit by the pandemic, said Myron Brilliante, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce. He said these vaccine doses will not be needed in the United States, where it's estimated that vaccine manufacturers will be able to produce enough doses by early June to inoculate every American. This move would affirm US leadership, including in initiatives such as COVAX, and as we work with partners around the globe because no one is safe from the pandemic until we are all safe from it, Brilliante said.

US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters that the United States continues to work closely with India to facilitate the movement of essential supplies and also address the bottlenecks of the supply chains. The COVID-19 situation in India is a global concern, she said. "We also continue to collaborate with our partners in India to battle this at the highest level. We know Secretary [of State, Tony] Blinken spoke to his counterpart on Tuesday and we remain deeply engaged with India at all levels as we work to combat this crisis of the pandemic together, Porter said.

Congresswoman Rashida Talib tweeted that the COVID-19 crisis in India is a harsh reminder that the pandemic is not over until the whole world is safe. "President Biden must support a patent waiver to ramp up global production now," she said. 

The Washington Post in a lead editorial hoped that all of India can seize the moment and begin to reverse the course of this disaster. India is not a faraway problem. In pandemic time and distance, every place is nearby, it said.

Major Democratic fundraiser for the Biden's presidential campaign Shekar Narasimhan urged the US president to speak to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We have to do something in the face of a humanitarian disaster. Every friend I know in the US with family in India reports that relatives have died or been affected, he said.

-Inputs from agencies

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