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Sputnik Over Delhi: Production of Russian Vaccine Kicks Off in India

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Sputnik Over Delhi: Production of Russian Vaccine Kicks Off in India

India’s COVID-19 vaccine production reflects its critical global position. The country is manufacturing its own, plus European, American, and Russian, vaccines.

Sputnik Over Delhi: Production of Russian Vaccine Kicks Off in India

A health worker prepares to administer the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to a man during a soft launch of the Russian vaccine by inoculating employees and families of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories in Hyderabad, India, Monday, May 17, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

For the past few years, the New Delhi government has not shied away from purchasing weapons from both the United States and Russia. Now, Indian companies are producing both American and Russian COVID-19 vaccines.

New Delhi apparently did not have as many reservations about Sputnik V as the European Union, which has still not granted approval to the Russian vaccine (and yes, its name is pronounced Sputnik Vee, not Sputnik Five). India has not only approved the drug and purchased doses, but is not hindering its companies from producing it. Over the past several months, the entity responsible for exporting Sputnik V – the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) – has signed agreements for licensed production with a number Indian pharmaceutical firms. Another domestic company, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, enjoys the exclusive right to distribute the Russian vaccine on the Indian market. As per various sources, the firms that signed the licensed production deals are: 

And yet this is but the tip of the iceberg of information; the current stage of work in each case is usually hard to establish. For instance, while many sources reported that India’s vaccine manufacturing powerhouse, Serum Institute of India, signed a deal with RDIF, the Indian company itself does not seem to currently have posted any statements on the deal and its progress. It is also unclear, at least based on news and brief announcements of RDIF, if the above amounts are the total limits of doses that a company is allowed to produce under the relevant license agreements, or if these are annual limits – and if so, for how long a period. Given the dynamics of the pandemic, it is obvious that the limits may be always raised in subsequent deals as necessary.

However, many media outlets have confirmed that some of the above-mentioned firms, such as Panacea Biotec, are indeed manufacturing already. Panacea Biotec started to provide the Indian market with Sputnik V in early September, apparently the first domestic producer to do. This is in line with earlier promises that Indian-produced Sputnik V was to start landing in September-October. Thus, the few next weeks and months should see a gradual rollout of the Russian vaccine from various Indian production lines. 

Sputnik V has thus joined an eclectic, international roster of COVID-19 vaccines being produced in India. The country is producing its own: Covaxin by Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research. But also, and primarily, the country has become a manufacturing hub for the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine, which Serum Institute of India is mass producing on a license (and which is named Covishield there). The same company, the world’s largest vaccine maker, has also initiated licensed production for the American Novavax firm: the drug is referred to as Covavax in India. Serum Institute of India is in fact planning to cooperate with even more foreign entities and is working on its own vaccines as well.

This means that India is already manufacturing vaccines across global political divides. One could even argue that the country’s vaccine production process now, in a way, reflects its political position in the world: It is manufacturing its own vaccine, a European one, an American one, and a Russian one — but not a Chinese one. This is in fact what New Delhi is doing in its diplomacy as well: trying to keep its partnerships with Russia, Europe, and the United States at the same time while making it clear that Pakistan and China are rivals with whom certain forms of cooperation are out of the question. And yet, at the same time, the final goal – elusive or not – is to remain independent and to achieve strategic autonomy, a fact symbolized here by the existence of India’s own vaccine.

This metaphor has its limits, as all metaphors do. Vaccine production is not like weapon imports – Moscow and Washington are irked when New Delhi buys major military platforms from the other partner, but it is irrational to assume they react the same way when India starts producing a vaccine for the other power. But the main point is that India, with its cheap production costs, robust vaccine manufacturing industry, willingness to absorb foreign technology, and openness to cooperate with global players nearly across the board (well, save for you-know-who), is poised to become one of the hubs of global COVID-19 vaccine production.

At the time of writing, it is being reported that some Indian hospitals are cancelling their orders for Sputnik V batches, as the domestic market has reached a stage of general wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines. This does not mean that the licensed production of the Russian vaccine in India will prove to be a failed experiment. First, such availability may fluctuate over weeks or months (and there is a huge gap between conditions in urban and rural areas, in many respects). And second, once India indeed vaccinated a vast majority of its adult population, its production capacities will still matter a lot for others.

Earlier this year, India’s vaccine diplomacy was severely criticized by many of the country’s citizens – who argued that the government should have focused on protecting its own people and not donate a part of the domestically manufactured doses to other countries. Later, as a result of the deadly second wave in April-May, New Delhi halted most of its exports and for this it faced discontent in other parts of the world. India’s partners had a point: Global donors were financing a part of the manufacturing in India on the condition that some of the doses produced would be distributed among poorer states through the COVAX mechanism. 

I have thus defended India’s vaccine donations to other countries (in one of my earlier articles for The Diplomat). As most lesser developed countries have barely vaccinated a fraction of their population, and have little funds to purchase foreign vaccines (not to speak of producing their own), dealing with COVID-19 will take years in much of the world. Europe, the United States, and other richer regions will have vaccinated most of their adult citizens far earlier. But at the current pace, India – with its own manufacturing capacities and despite its various challenges – will possibly reach this comfortable stage after the West, and yet much before poorer African and Asian countries. As of September 17, India’s CoWIN portal reported a total of 20 percent of adults vaccinated with two doses, and 60 percent with one dose. Some sources are already claiming that New Delhi is planning to resume larger exports any time now. 

Once the situation in India stabilizes, the fact that the country has the capabilities and the agreements in place to produce foreign vaccines will be of great global significance. So far, AstraZeneca’s vaccine was the most exported COVID-19 vaccine from India (either sold or donated) and it is expected to keep this dominant position. Yet, the same distinction – license production in India with the objective of selling to a third country, and with the Russian and the Indian partner likely sharing the income – may eventually be applied to Sputnik V.