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EXCLUSIVE| With 'Vaccine Maitri', India pulls off diplomatic coup against China in Africa

Officials say the 1.7 crore doses of vaccines from India have done in just three months, what billions of dollars in development finance deployed by China across the African continent over the past decade, haven't been able to. Gain Africa's trust.

March 19, 2021 / 04:33 PM IST

With Made in India vaccines having now reached or being in the process of landing in three dozen African nations through a variety of channels, New Delhi has been able to overtake China in terms of influence, on the continent. In a region where Beijing has consistently expanded its presence through investments and trade, the latest turn of events have turned the tide in favor of India, diplomats believe.

"We have been able to gain the trust of African partners and project our capabilities across the continent in a way that has been missing for years now. Unlike solidarity at international summits, the goodwill being generated now will stick around for a long time," a senior official in charge of the 'Vaccine Maitri' goodwill program being run by the External Affairs Ministry said.

As the outpouring of gratitude from African leaders continue, the government is also drawing up plans to expand its African summits and initiate bilateral discussions with nations hitherto outside India's traditional sphere of influence in East Africa, he added.

Direct grants of vaccines by India to African nations, is the foremost route by which Indian made vaccines find their way into Africa. Officials confirmed that India has donated the AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by the Serum Institute of India to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mozambique, eSwatini, Botswana, Mauritius and Seychelles.

Commercial sales to African countries by the two producers are the second route. Earlier this month, Zimbabwe became the first African country to authorize the use of Covaxin, developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International and the Indian Council of Medical Research. The company has indicated that further talks are also on with other nations.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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But due to its global connections and deep pockets, rival Astrazeneca has been able to negotiate with more nations and for larger shipments of its Covishield vaccine. Case in point, it has sold 1 million doses to South Africa, which the nation controversially later said it plans to share with other African countries.

However, the largest route is eventually expected to be the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative which commercially sources vaccines from major vaccine producers to distribute in underdeveloped nations. Back on February 24, the West African nation of Ghana became the first country in the world to receive vaccines under the COVAX initiative with a delivery of 600,000 AstraZeneca jabs made in India.

As of 19 March, New Delhi has supplied 5.96 crore doses of Made in India vaccines to 72 nations across the world, as a result of both the producers based in India having entered into bilateral contracts or through the Covax initiative, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said on March 18.

He also stressed that since the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, India has provided medical supplies such as hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol and other relevant drugs to a total of 150 nations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of this, 82 were given as grants.

Meanwhile, while China has donated doses of its indigenously developed Sinopharm vaccine to few nations like Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt and Tunisia, most are not keen on associating with the country, a foreign diplomat said.

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Scramble for Africa

Since 2013, Beijing has aggressively stepped up its outreach which focuses on providing long term loans to African nations for crucial infrastructure projects. According to the China Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University, African governments and their state-owned enterprises have been dished out upwards of $148 billion worth of loans till 2018. More than a thousand separate loans have been given by Chinese government, banks, and contractors. Upwards of $2.7 billion was also funneled by way of overseas foreign direct investment to the continent from China till 2019.

Recognizing this challenge, and further aiming to expand India's list of export destinations, the Narendra Modi-government made Africa a priority in foreign policy since coming to power. "Resources in the form of line of credits and trading concessions have been redirected to African nations and official visits have been stepped up massively over the past few years," a senior official overseeing India's outreach to Africa, said.

Modi himself had kicked off a list of state and delegation level visits in 2016 when he went to Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya in South East Africa, India's traditional backyard owing to historical, cultural ties and a large Indian diaspora. In 2018, the PM went up the map on visits to the East African nations of Rwanda and Uganda. Multiple trips to South Africa for BRICS meetings have also been made.

India has also held three India-Africa Forum Summits, with the fourth summit scheduled for 2020 being postponed to 2021 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Subhayan Chakraborty

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