By Iain Marlow, Archana Chaudhary and Kari Lindberg
India’s huge capacity to make coronavirus vaccines is helping the country take on China in the battle to gain political influence across the developing world.
Competition among poorer nations to get cheap or free vaccines to fight the pandemic had given China a golden chance to strengthen ties in emerging markets it has been courting for years. And initially Beijing seemed in a strong position. It suppressed the domestic spread of Covid-19 last year and accelerated the production of shots.
At the same time, India was struggling to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the virus, with nearly 100,000 cases a day, while a nationwide lockdown sent its economy into recession for the first time in 25 years.
But Chinese pharmaceutical companies have been reticent in sharing details of their pivotal vaccine trials crucial for building public trust around the world, and new domestic outbreaks reinforced the urgency of inoculating China’s own 1.4 billion population, a task that could take years. Meanwhile, India sent millions of doses to neighboring Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, allowing them to begin vaccinations earlier than if they had waited for Chinese doses.
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“Because of their gift, Sri Lanka has been able to start vaccination immediately,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a Sri Lankan opposition lawmaker who received one of the Indian shots. “Most Sri Lankans would be thankful for this.”
So far, New Delhi has managed to ship nearly 6.8 million free vaccines around the world. China has pledged around 3.9 million, according to publicly available information compiled by Bloomberg, some of which have yet to arrive.
Beijing and New Delhi have long competed for influence in Asia, and tensions between the two have risen since the pandemic struck, including their most violent border clash in decades. India has banned hundreds of Chinese apps, including ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, sought to attract investors away from China and boosted security ties with Japan, Australia and the U.S.
The rapid growth of China’s economy -- now roughly five times the size of India’s -- has allowed Beijing to forge ties with poorer countries by loaning tens of billions under its Belt and Road Initiative.
But Covid has given India a diplomatic opportunity to pursue its aspirations of becoming a global power. Its pharmaceutical industry, especially the Serum Institute of India, had already made the South Asian nation the main supplier of essential medicines to the developing world. Now it’s allowing India to push back against China’s growing influence.
A case in point is Myanmar, which has been rocked by a military coup and shares borders with both China and India. Beijing promised to send around 300,000 doses but has yet to deliver anything, while New Delhi quickly delivered 1.7 million shots.
New Delhi recognized early on that Indian production capacity would be crucial to beating the pandemic, said Ashok Malik, a policy adviser to the Ministry of External Affairs. Last year, when Indian manufacturers were exporting the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine -- hyped by then President Donald Trump -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi was already talking to world leaders about providing vaccines, he said.
Not that India doesn’t need doses itself. It too has more than a billion people to protect, and while China swiftly suppressed Covid-19, India was unable to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly.
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New Delhi says it’s prioritizing its own population. But India’s ability to manufacture vaccines was always going to outstrip the nation’s ability to inoculate all of its own citizens. And the country’s leaders can now deploy those millions of surplus vaccines to win friends and influence abroad..
“In Bangladesh, the process of vaccination has started and it’s going very well, at least in the cities,” said Meghna Guhathakurta, who is set to get the Indian dose in Dhaka this month. She said her relatives in the Indian city of Kolkata “haven’t been contacted and don’t know when they will get vaccinated.”
Even as the Covid death toll in India passed 156,000, compared to less than 5,000 official deaths in China, New Delhi promised it wouldn’t engage in vaccine nationalism and block exports.
Its domestic vaccine producers were free to sell to richer nations, but the government promised to buy supplies for smaller countries, as well as its own citizens. Officials organized trips for foreign ambassadors to visit pharmaceutical hubs in Pune and Hyderabad, and assured neighbors in South Asia, the Indian Ocean and even distant Dominica and Barbados they’d get affordable vaccines and would receive initial shipments for free.
Since then, India has exported a total of more than 33 million shots -- three times as many doses as it has administered domestically, where the slow pace of vaccinations has prompted criticism and the new option for some of securing jabs at private clinics.
“India, with all its problems, has been true to its word,” Malik said.
India’s vaccine diplomacy has helped soothe some prickly relationships with neighbors in South Asia, “where it has been fighting an increasingly sharp diplomatic battle with China,” said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong, who has edited books on health challenges and foreign policy. New Delhi is “pushing back.”
Even on China’s borders, Indian shots are showing up. Mongolia’s prime minister received one of 150,000 free doses delivered by India. On the other hand, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the president of Seychelles have taken Chinese vaccines.
India’s vaccine industry -- which is delivering shipments to both developing and developed economies -- has even helped ties with some industrialized nations suffering hold ups in deliveries of western doses. Canada, whose prime minister irked Modi’s administration by expressing support for protesting Indian farmers, asked the Serum Institute to expedite shipments.
Both the Indian-produced shots and the Chinese ones have been criticized for being potentially less effective than the vaccines of Pfizer Inc. and Moderna.
India is currently shipping Covishield, a locally-produced Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and exporting Bharat Biotech International Ltd.’s home-grown Covaxin shots for clinical trials. Demand for Indian shots is expected to jump once Covaxin wins regulatory approvals, and Hyderabad-based Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories begins shipping the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. China’s Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd., Sinovac Biotech Ltd., CanSino Biologics Inc. and Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products Co. Ltd. have exported doses to countries including the UAE, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey and Brazil for clinical trials, and Beijing has promised to provide vaccine aid to more than a dozen other countries.
For developing nations hammered by the pandemic, being able to begin inoculations for high risk groups with cheap and plentiful shots that have a 60% or 70% efficacy rate in trials is better that having small amounts of a more expensive vaccine that may not be available for months.
“People were a bit wary of the vaccines, as they came from India. Now the mistrust is largely gone,” said Rashidul Mannan, after getting a dose of the Indian vaccine at a booth in Dhaka. “I think people will look more positively to India now than before.”
Developing nations will also have access to millions of shots from the Covax initiative, a program led by the World Health Organization designed to acquire doses for poorer countries. Covax aims to deliver nearly 150 million doses in the first quarter of 2021, and 2 billion by the end of the year.
Still, with western pharmaceutical firms largely focusing on rich nations struggling to contain their own outbreaks, many poorer countries will rely for at least part of their inoculation program on donations and purchases from China and India.
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For China, free vaccines could help soften some of the ill will it’s generated through recent geopolitical spats, such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s pledge to donate 500,000 doses to the Philippines was scrutinized in a congressional inquiry in the Southeast Asian nation. The country’s vaccine procurement chief Carlito Galvez told lawmakers that Manila should “set aside” differences with Beijing on competing maritime claims, prompting shocked responses from an opposition lawmaker. Galvez later told the Senate: “We will not compromise our stake.”
One place where China’s influence still dominates is India’s arch-rival Pakistan, recipient of some $70 billion of Chinese financing for infrastructure. Like Brazil, Pakistan gave China’s vaccine makers the chance to carry out clinical trials they had been unable to complete at home when the number of domestic cases subsided. Pakistan’s health chief Faisal Sultan called it “banking on an old relationship.”
“We lent a hand on the science part, making sure that we would have credible data for its efficacy,” Sultan said in an interview.
China is also having success in Africa and Latin America -- major investment regions for Beijing. By early February, Beijing had sent vaccine aid to more than a dozen countries including Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.
In the end, the competition between China and India to provide vaccines, especially to nations where their strategic interests overlap, are likely to help not only those nations but the rest of the world.
“China is facing formidable competition” in its vaccine diplomacy, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “For countries on the receiving end, that’s a good thing.”