The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

US Aids India’s Vaccine Efforts – Cleverly

Following a week of outrage, the U.S. stepped up its game in helping India beat a disastrous second COVID-19 wave. But questions persist about how it seeks to do so.

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US Aids India’s Vaccine Efforts – Cleverly
Credit: Flickr/NIAID

Amid an unfolding COVID-19 catastrophe in India, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke over telephone on April 26. The call came a day after the United States embarked on a large-scale campaign to assure India, a vital security partner, that it stands by the country amid a tsunami of new cases that has pushed India’s creaky healthcare system to its breaking point.

Over the last couple of weeks as the pandemic raged on, significant and influential sections of the Indian public not only lashed out at the Biden administration’s silence on the issue but also pointed out ways in which his – and former President Donald Trump’s — invocation of the 1950 Defense Production Act (DPA) to manufacture COVID-19 in the U.S. could end up choking India’s own efforts in that direction by pulling raw materials and supplies toward U.S. efforts. (The DPA gives the U.S. president an “array of authorities to shape national defense preparedness programs and to take appropriate steps to maintain and enhance the domestic industrial base,” effectively granting the federal government the ability to shape the decisions of private firms.) An April 23 analysis from five prominent Indian think tanks noted that “over a dozen items desperately needed for vaccine manufacturing in India fall under the DPA’s purview.”

The issue, then, becomes one of how the U.S. could work around the DPA to aid Indian vaccine efforts. Comparing the Indian and U.S. readouts of the Biden-Modi call – as well as a close reading of background White House press briefing following it – provides tentative answers, while raising new questions.

The White House readout of the April 26 call noted, “The President pledged America’s steadfast support for the people of India who have been impacted by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases… In response, the United States is providing a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials, and therapeutics.” It added, “Prime Minister Modi expressed appreciation for the strong cooperation between both countries.”

“The two leaders resolved that the United States and India will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the effort to protect our citizens and the health of our communities,” the White House readout also stated.

In contrast, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ readout was longer and indicated that despite considerable U.S. outreach to India over the past couple of days differences remain between the two countries when it comes to how their common pandemic response ought to look (and not just in India).

The MEA readout notes, “President Biden conveyed solidarity with India and affirmed that the United States was determined to support India’s efforts by … identifying sources of raw materials to be made available for the manufacture of Covishield vaccines.” Note that this is – as a matter of plain English — different from the assertion made in the White House readout, which noted that the U.S. is “providing” vaccine raw materials to India.

Incidentally – and curiously – the MEA formulation matches that of a statement released by U.S. National Security Council (NSC) Spokesperson Emily Horne on April 25 following a call between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval. That statement also noted that the “United States has identified sources of specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine that will immediately be made available to India.” (Incidentally, the lawyerly and overly convoluted NSC formulation was quite different from a tweet from the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, also on April 25, which simply noted that the U.S. is “rapidly providing … raw material for vaccines, and more.”)

A White House press briefing on April 26 may hold the key in explaining this discrepancy between the two readouts.

In a teleconference background briefing to the press on India’s disastrous second COVID-19 wave on April 26, a senior Biden administration official confirmed that the U.S. will be diverting orders it had placed for “millipore [sic, Millipore] filters” to manufacture AstraZeneca vaccines to India to aid the manufacturing of the Covishield vaccine. (Covishield is the Serum Institute of India’s brand name for the Oxford-developed AstraZeneca vaccine it manufactures.) Millipore filters are manufactured by Sigma-Aldrich (MilliporeSigma in Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico), a subsidiary of Merck KGaA. Certain kinds of these filters form part of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine production solutions. So, it is plausible that the filters in question are Sigma-Aldrich ones.

Names meanwhile have confused matters further. While Merck KGaA is headquartered in Damstadt, Germany, the North American pharma giant Merck & Co. is incorporated in New Jersey; there is no relation between the two, other than a legacy connection and a festering trademark dispute. On March 2, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the North American Merck will help manufacture Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the United States in two of its facilities through the DPA.

Could it be that the “millipore” filters that the U.S. is diverting from its own orders to India are manufactured by Merck & Co (or some other firm) and not Merck KGaA? No. A search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office trademark database reveals that all live “Millipore” and related trademarks are either registered or last owned by the German company, and not the U.S. pharma giant.

White House COVID-19 coordinator Tim Manning, in a Twitter thread on April 26, illustrated the vaccine filters diversion — Manning noted that the U.S. “diverted our pending [emphasis added] orders of vaccine filters to India’s vaccine manufacturing effort” — within the context of how the DPA would not hamper India’s (or any other powers’) ability to manufacture vaccines. But, it seems that the DPA is a bit of a red herring in the case of the specific vaccine filters.

The filters in question are manufactured by a subsidiary (Sigma-Aldrich) of a German firm (Merck KGaA), which also operates in the United States (as MilliporeSigma). But Sigma-Aldrich also operates in the rest of the world — and not just in the United States. Therefore, in that case, immediately the applicability of the DPA in a straightforward way is not clear, and best left to lawyers and legal interpretation, much of it perhaps depending on whether these specific vaccines filters are physically manufactured in the U.S or not. Simply put, what may have happened is the U.S. allowed some of the orders for the Millipore filters that it had already placed (but not received) from Sigma-Aldrich to be instead purchased by India, a bookkeeping sleight of hand of sorts.

This point – that what the U.S. seems to have done in this specific instance was a workaround — was probably not lost on the Indian government. The MEA readout of the Biden-Modi call seemed to have reaffirmed this point, as diplomatically as possible, noting that Modi “underscored the need to ensure smooth and open supply chains of raw materials and inputs required for manufacture of vaccines, medicines, and therapeutics related to COVID-19.” Such a statement would have been less of a necessity had the Indian government already seen clear cut exemptions to the DPA and other U.S. legal agreements, including with major vaccine manufacturers, including AstraZeneca — being made.