India will give millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine to South Asian countries in the next few weeks, government sources said, drawing praise from the country’s neighbours and pushing back against China’s dominating presence in the region.
Free shipments of AstraZeneca’s vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Myanmar and the Seychelles are next in line to get free consignments as India uses its strength as one of the world’s biggest makers of generic drugs to build friendships.
India sent one million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covishield vaccine to Nepal on Thursday, a gift that is likely to help repair strained ties between the neighbours.
Nepal’s Minister of Health Hridayesh Tripathi said the vaccine will be administered to health workers and other frontline personnel within a week to 10 days and that
Tripathi said Nepal would like to purchase four million more doses, and asked for the Indian government’s help in the matter.
“The government of India has shown goodwill by providing the vaccine in grant. This is at the people’s level, it is the public who are suffering the most from COVID-19,” said Tripathi.
Nepal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pradeep Gyawali flew to India last week to formally request the vaccine.
India’s gesture comes at a time when its ties with Nepal have been strained by a territorial dispute and Indian concern over China’s expanding political and economic influence in the Himalayan nation that lies sandwiched between the Asian giants.
China, which had promised Nepal help to deal with the pandemic, is awaiting Nepali clearance for its Sinopharm shots.
“We have asked them to submit more documents and information before we give them the approval,” said Santosh KC, spokesman for Nepal’s Department of Drug Administration.
Bangladesh was supposed to get 110,000 doses of vaccine free of charge from Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech, but Dhaka refused to contribute towards the development cost of the vaccine, leading to a deadlock.
Bangladesh instead turned to India for urgent supplies and received two million vaccine doses as a gift on Thursday, with the government saying it plans to start inoculating the population of 168 million people next week.
Health Minister Zahid Maleque said Bangladesh is buying a further 30 million doses of the vaccine and expects to receive monthly consignments of five million doses.
Impoverished Bangladesh has seen 8,000 people die from coronavirus, although the pandemic has not been as bad as feared in a country with overcrowded cities and only 600 intensive care beds.
“India is making the AstraZeneca vaccine, which makes all the difference. It can be stored and transported at normal refrigerated temperatures and countries like Bangladesh have that facility,” a Bangladesh health official said.
‘Our moment to shine’
India for years has struggled to match the pace of Chinese investment in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives, where China is building ports, roads and power stations as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
But the demand for vaccines in these countries desperate to revive their tourism-dependent economies has offered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government a way to claw back ground, diplomats say.
India is considering giving away anything from 12 million to 20 million shots to its neighbours in the first wave of assistance over the next three to four weeks, a government source told Reuters.
India is also helping with the training of health workers in some of these countries and the setting up of the infrastructure to administer the shots, the source said.
“It’s a well-crafted, calibrated series of actions you are seeing, they confirm the validity of our ‘neighbourhood first’ policy,” former Indian ambassador, Rajiv Bhatia, told Reuters.
“It plays to our strengths in science and pharma, and this is our moment to shine.”