Biden pledges to aid India in desperate fight against Covid surge

According to a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the plan on Monday afternoon, the team will be made up of personnel from US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Agency for International Development.

The effort will include “public health experts to work in close collaboration with our embassy, with India’s health ministries and experts, and with India’s Epidemic Intelligence Service staff”.

The United States will dispatch an interagency “strike team” along with a massive influx of vaccine manufacturing materials, oxygen-generating equipment, and medication to aid Indian authorities’ fight against the massive spike in Covid-19 cases that has overwhelmed the country’s health system and starved gasping citizens of oxygen.

Members of the team will “work hand-in-hand with India’s experts in a number of areas,” the official said, “including laboratory services, surveillance and epidemiology, bioinformatics — for sequencing and modelling of the disease — infection prevention and control, vaccine rollout and risk communication”.

Additionally, administration officials announced that the US will divert shipments of raw materials and equipment meant for manufacturing of AstraZeneca’s CovidShield vaccine — which has not yet been approved for use by American health authorities — as well as provide oxygen generators and other equipment courtesy of the US Departments of State and Defence.

“We also are exploring options to provide oxygen concentration and ventilators, and we’re in technical discussions with India to ensure that the equipment we supply will connect to devices in India, and we’re also going to be providing training associated with all of these requests as needed,” the official said, adding later that Washington would also provide New Delhi with “therapeutics, personal protective equipment, and tests,” along with assistance in transporting food and other supplies.

The announcement of such a massive influx of aid to India came just hours after President Joe Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and one day after White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told his Indian counterpart that the US “is determined to help India in its time of need”.

According to the White House’s account of the conversation between the two leaders, Mr Biden “[committed] that the United States and India will work closely together in the fight against Covid-19” and “pledged America’s steadfast support for the people of India who have been impacted by the recent surge in Covid-19 cases”.

Indian officials have complained that Mr Biden’s use of the Defence Production Act — a Korean War-era law that enables the president to order the prioritization of government contracts by US companies — has stymied the ability of vaccine production suppliers to export needed raw materials to India. But the White House official responsible for coordinating the provision of supplies for combatting the Covid-19 pandemic pushed back on the idea that there has been any sort of export ban imposed by the Biden administration.

In a series of tweets posted to his personal Twitter account, White House Covid-19 Supply Coordinator Tim Manning wrote that the companies supplying US vaccine makers “export their product all across the world”. He also explained that the prioritization of US government contacts by vaccine material suppliers “doesn’t create the [supply] shortages” because “there is just more global manufacturing happening everywhere than the suppliers can support”.

A Biden administration official also stressed that supply shortages are a worldwide problem and that the US “is just one client of many in the consumption of raw materials” for vaccine manufacturing, but said the US would be able to part with supplies for making the AstraZeneca vaccine because it will not be needed for the Biden administration’s vaccination efforts over the next few months.

“We will be providing materials for the production of the AstraZeneca CoviShield vaccine to the Serum Institute of India…given that there is not enough of the supply for the entire global manufacturing effort, we in the United States are diverting our order to India,” the official said. “Because of the scope of the current situation and the state of own production here at home, this is the most effective and rapid step we can take at this stage to provide support at scale”.

The official added that US does not currently have ready-to-administer supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine because those doses that have cleared the manufacturing process are currently undergoing quality assurance testing to ensure that problems at the Baltimore, Maryland facility where they were made did not reduce their effectiveness. But they suggested that the AstraZeneca doses undergoing review, and those still being manufactured, could be ready for distribution to other countries in relatively short order.

“We expect that there are approximately 10 million doses that could be released if and when the [Food and Drug Administration] gives us concurrence, which could happen in the coming weeks,” the official said, along with “an estimated additional 50 million doses that are in various stages of production”.

“We expect to have about 60 million doses of AstraZeneca that the US could share with other countries as they become available over the next two months,” they said.

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