Due to the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis in India, the global supply of COVAX has been badly hit, so much so that there are many parts of the world where one shot has been dispensed to health workers or frontline workers and the second shot has not been forthcoming, a top Biden administration official told lawmakers on Thursday.
"COVAX has suffered a big blow given the scale of the pandemic in India," Samantha Power, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations for a hearing on the Fiscal 2022 Budget Request for the USAID.
"The Serum Institute of India, which had planned to supply upwards of 140 million doses by the end of June, has had to pull back that supply because of the domestic emergency," Power said responding to a question on the vaccine crisis that has been created across the globe due to the scale of the pandemic in India.
"COVAX now is looking to countries like ours and other countries around the world to contribute supply, to donate supply," she said.
"The biggest issue for them right now is that there are many parts of the world where one shot has been dispensed to, for example, health workers or frontline workers. And the second shot has not been forthcoming because the expected supply from India had to be pulled back due to the crisis in India," Power said.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
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.
"It is in our interest that health workers and frontline workers get vaccinated everywhere in the world as a foundation for larger-scale vaccination. I think COVAX''s biggest challenge so far has been a lack of financing, lack of supply, more than any issues with country selection," she said.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced that the United States is looking to donate 80 million vaccine doses by the end of June, which is five times more than what any other country has donated to COVAX.
Senator Chris Coons said the variant that emerged in India is far more transmissive than the base variant. It has just made it to his home state of Delaware and is circling the world, he said.
"We face an uncertain future as more and more variants will develop that could be both more transmissive and more lethal," the Delaware senator said.
Power said the main challenge is the supply of these vaccines.
"The key is ensuring that vaccines are available at scale and at cost. So we are also in dialogue with the pharmaceutical companies to try to ensure that a public good like vaccination, like pandemic prevention and response is resourced.
"But the biggest challenge that we face is just a shortage of supply, which I think these donations (by the US) will begin to address. But we hope that the G7 and other international gatherings will allow other countries also to step up," she said.
At a separate Congressional hearing, Rochelle Paula Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers that over the last year, the US has trained more than 10,000 infection control preventionists in India.
"When it came time and India was having challenges, we were able to mobilise those collaborations. We were able to rapidly get oxygen canisters to India. Our work in the CDC is really in our technical surveillance, our technical advice, our technical and scaling up capacity," she told members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
The CDC has had a regional office in India for about two decades now, Walensky pointed out.
Goldman Sachs CEO David M Solomon told the members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee that his heart goes out to the people of India and others around the world who continue to suffer from the virus.
Goldman Sachs has announced an additional USD 10 million commitment to support the relief-and-recovery efforts in India, which is home to three of its offices and thousands of its people, he said.
"Our funding will be deployed to support frontline health facilities that are leading the fight against COVID-19, including ongoing vaccination efforts. It will also be used to support initiatives promoting mental health in several cities across India and to support communities with economic recovery," Solomon said.
The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access or COVAX is a worldwide initiative aimed at an equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization (WHO).