Partnership test

Science should be in the driving seat in all collaborative efforts for a vaccine for COVID-19

The Ministry of External Affairs has clarified the country’s position on collaborative efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 — the call on partnerships between Indian vaccine manufacturers and foreign scientific agencies will be taken by the expert group set up for the purpose, it has said. This comes at a time when the picture of a potential joint venture between Indian companies and some foreign agencies — especially Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute that is slated to “shortly” begin mass trials of the Sputnik-V COVID-19 vaccine — is hazy. The foreign ministry has said that any such venture will be contingent on an evaluation by the “National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19”. This sends the right message — that due processes will be followed and science, not geopolitics or ideological considerations, will be the prime mover in the country’s choice of collaborators.

Three vaccine candidates — developed by the US-based pharma major Moderna, Oxford University and AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm — have entered the final stage of clinical trials which will determine if these preventives are safe for mass use. These trials could take four to six months. But even as the jury is out on critical matters related to safety and efficacy, several countries, including the US, Germany, Britain and France, have entered into pre-purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers. There are fears that such advance agreements will make the vaccines inaccessible to everyone apart from people in the First World. In fact, just about 10 years ago, the US and several European countries used their purchasing power to crowd out Third World countries from the initial supplies of the HINI vaccine. There are indications that Delhi is alive to the perils of vaccine nationalism. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reportedly discussed vaccine cooperation last week with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas. Bangladesh has indicated its readiness to participate in the clinical trials of a vaccine developed in India.

India caters to 60 per cent of the world’s vaccine demand. The Serum Institute of India, one of the partners of the Oxford-AstraZeneca project, is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. The country should leverage its manufacturing capacities to secure more collaborations — given the country’s demographics, India is very likely to need more than one vaccine. The foreign ministry has said that it will play the role of a facilitator in this endeavour. It’s up to the country’s scientific agencies to ensure that science is in the driving seat of such collaborative ventures.

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