Bill Gates, the white man’s burden and Modi government’s vaccine debacle

An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the right-wing belief in magical capitalism, has led to the disaster that India is now facing

May 08, 2021 by Prabir Purkayastha

The incompetence of the Indian government is starkly visible in its handling of the current COVID-19 crisis. It fares even worse on the vaccine front. Its belief in the ideology of free-market capitalism is that the market will magically produce whatever we need. This is why it starved the 7 public sector vaccine manufacturing units (Down to Earth, 17 April 2021) of any support. And also gave the public sector vaccine, Covaxin, developed by ICMR and National Institute of Virology to a private company, Bharat Biotech on an exclusive basis. It also believed that Serum Institute of India, another private sector company and the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, would make vaccines in required amounts without orders or capital support. Or that the government might need to intervene to see that India’s new Quad ally, the US, does not stop the required supplies we need for vaccine manufacture.

This is why though India has at least 20 vaccine and 30 biologic manufacturers, all of whom could have been harnessed for vaccine manufacturing, only two are producing vaccines. That too at a pace completely inadequate for our needs.

India has a long history of vaccine development. It starts with the Haffkine Institute, Mumbai in the 1920s. With the 1970 Patent Act and the CSIR laboratories reverse engineering drugs, it also broke the monopoly of global multinationals. It is this change, fought for by the left, that led to India emerging as the largest generic supplier of drugs and vaccines in the world, and global pharmacy of the poor.

Bill Gates recently spoke to Sky TV in the UK on India and South Africa’s proposal in WTO on intellectual property (IP) protection being lifted on COVID-19 vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. He claimed that IP is not the issue and “Moving a vaccine… into a factory in India, …it’s only because of our grants and expertise that can happen at all.” In other words, without the white man coming and telling us how to make vaccines and his money, we cannot make vaccines.

This is a rehash of the AIDS debate, where the western governments and their industry— Big Pharma —argued that developing generic AIDS drugs would lead to poor quality drugs and theft of western intellectual property. Bill Gates, who built his fortune on Microsoft’s IP, is the leading defender of IP in the world. With his newfound halo of the great philanthropist, he is leading Big Pharma’s charge against the weakening of patents on the global stage. The role of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of WHO, is also to dilute any move by WHO to share patents and knowledge during the pandemic.

Indian companies, as the table below shows, are the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world by volume for existing vaccines. The global MNC’s or Big Pharma’s share are much bigger when it comes to money. For example (WHO’s Market Report 2020, Figure 3.1), GSK with 11% of the global market by volume, generates 40% of the market by value, while Serum Institute with 28% of the market by volume has only 3% of the market by value! Their patent-protected vaccines with monopoly pricing get much higher prices. This is the model that Bill Gates and his ilk are selling. Let Big Pharma make the big bucks even if it bankrupts the poorer countries. The western philanthropic money of Gates and Buffet, will “help” the poor third world to get some vaccines, albeit slowly. As long as they get to call the shots.

The Modi government’s approach to vaccines is based on the central pillar of RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party] ideology: the task of the state is only to help big capital. Anything else, including planning, is “socialism”. In the case of vaccines, it means no attempt to get the companies—both public and private sector together—to plan what was required for a quick vaccination program; put in the money and the necessary supply chain. Instead, it believed that India’s private pharmaceutical industry would do all of this on its own.

It forgot that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was the product of public domain science—the CSIR institutions—the public sector and nationalist companies like Cipla. They all came out of the national movement and built India’s Pharma industry. It is the Haffkine Institute under Sahab Sokhey’s leadership and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) built under the leadership of Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, that led to India’s vaccine and biologics capacity. It is on this base that India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity rests.

No, it is not “niji” (private) companies that built the vaccine capacity in India, as the PM claims. They rode on the back of public sector science and technology that had been built in the country from the ’50s to the ’90s.

To vaccinate all the eligible population—above 18 years of age—India would require about 2 billion doses of the vaccine. To plan for the production of this order, apart from technology and capital, we also have to plan for the complex supply chain that is required for production. This is from raw materials to intermediate supplies such as filters, special bags, etc. Serum Institute has identified 37 such items that are currently embargoed by the US from exports under the Defence Production Act, 1950, a relic of the US Korean war.

If we put together what Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biologic E, Haffkine Bio Pharmaceutical, and the five other companies who have signed up for the Sputnik V manufacture, India is already planning for an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. If we include the public sector units idling under the Modi government, India could have been easily boosted its vaccine manufacturing capacity to 4 billion doses and produced the necessary 2 billion doses and more this year. It would then have made it possible for India to completely vaccinate its target population and yet have enough left to meet its export commitments including for WHO’s Covax platform. What is missing is a Planning Commission that could plan this exercise and the political will to it carry forward. Not a vacuous Niti Ayog and an incompetent government.

Instead, the Modi government did not even bother to place an order on Serum Institute till January 11, 2021, and that too for a measly 11 million doses. The next order of 120 million Covishield and Covaxin doses was placed only in the third week of March when the number of cases had reached a daily case load of about 40,000, and India was well into its deadly second wave. It had a belief in the magic of the capitalist market that would solve all its problems, without the government being required anything.

India and South Africa have asked in the WTO that the rules on intellectual property should be waived during the pandemic, and knowledge, including patents and know-how, should be shared without restrictions. This proposal has been backed by WHO and has huge support among most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The holdouts, predictably are the rich countries who want to protect the global vaccine market for their Big Pharma companies. Under pressure from the global community and the bad optics of the US hoarding vaccines, the Biden administration has finally decided to accept the South Africa and India’s initiative of a temporary patent waiver, after stonewalling it in the WTO till this time. But this waiver is restricted to only patents and not other associated intellectual property as the South Africa and India’s proposal had wanted. But still, it is a victory for the global public health community, though only a first step.

While India is spearheading the need to share know-how with all companies capable of manufacturing vaccines, can it explain why it has given an exclusive license to Bharat Biotech? For manufacturing a vaccine developed with public money and in public institutions like ICMR and the National Institute of Virology? Why is it not being shared under a non-exclusive license to both Indian and companies in countries outside India? Instead, ICMR is receiving royalties from Bharat Biotech from sharing its know-how exclusively with Bharat Biotech. Only under public pressure, ICMR is now sharing its know-how with the Maharashtra governments’ public sector Haffkine Bio Pharmaceutical, while giving Bharat Biotech a 6 months lead time with also financial support money from the central government.

Modi had dreamed that India would be the vaccine arm of the Quad. It forgot that in competition with China, it needs a vaccine production base that could take care of its vaccination needs as well as external commitments. China can do this because it has developed at least 3 vaccines already from Sinopharm, Sinovac, and Cansino that have been licensed to others. Their production is now being ramped up and China is now the largest supplier to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And last, China has also and controlled its pandemic, unlike India.

This is where the Modi government has failed and failed badly. An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the RSS belief in magical capitalism has led to the disaster that we are now facing.