The partnership between the UK and India on COVID-19 vaccine development is an example of deep ties nurtured by consistent bilateral engagement
India, a vaccine manufacturing hub and often touted as a pharma leader globally, is in the thick of action as healthcare experts and governments race to find a way to tackle the novel coronavirus. As many as 100 potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in development around the world, and at least five of these are in preliminary human testing since April. At the center of these is the UK’s Oxford University-led consortium, in partnership with India’s Serum Institute (SII). Run by the Poonawalla Group, SII is the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume, and is credited with developing innovative therapies like pneumonia and dengue monoclonal vaccines.
To get a headstart, SII will begin production of this vaccine before the autumn target date of the Oxford trial; its aim is to produce 1 million doses by September. The vaccine, a type known as a recombinant viral vector vaccine, uses a weakened version of the common-cold virus spiked with proteins from the novel coronavirus to generate a response from the body's immune system. The ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine is made from a virus ChAdOx1, which is a weakened version of the common cold virus, the adenovirus. It is being developed by the Jenner Institute, the Oxford Vaccine Group at the university, and licensed to AstraZeneca, backed by both the UK and Indian governments. Recent developments suggest that AstraZeneca has reached a licensing agreement with SII to supply one billion doses for low-and-middle-income countries, with a commitment to provide 400 million before the end of 2020. Vaccine research and development is a costly, high-risk enterprise. Besides, harmonization of vaccine regulatory standards and the supply chain has its challenges - but globalization and increased international cooperation has managed to address these teething problems over the last two decades.
The race for a Covid-19 vaccine across nations is not a new phenomenon. International cooperation in healthcare can be traced back to the 14th century. Relatively more recently, Europe held its first International Sanitary Conference for multilateral cooperation to prevent the spread of cholera in 1851. Some scholars refer to this as global health diplomacy, and it took centre stage in the early part of the 21st century when the world had to combat pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, and seasonal and avian influenzas that impacted economic development and were seen as a threat to both national security and foreign policy.
Coming back to the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine and the role of SII, one of the many reasons why this seamless, collaborative effort between researchers, pharma companies and governments is moving at an accelerated pace is because of an existing deep relationship between India and the UK, cemented over the past five years in particular.
The bilateral partners have taken quick, decisive steps to come together to show collective willingness to build a vaccine at a time of unprecedented global economic hardship and geopolitical strain. Hosted by the UK government, the Global Vaccine Summit by Gavi, a public-private global vaccine alliance that aims to increase access to immunisation in poor countries, that concluded on Friday saw 30 heads of state attend the summit virtually. In 2014, India became a donor country to the Gavi and has contributed an estimated $12 million to it.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, UK’s Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, welcomed the Indian participation and was quoted saying, “It is an established fact that 50% of the world's vaccine production is currently in India, which makes it an important partner in that area. When we look at the scale of production which India has of vaccines, it will be an important partner in ensuring a large number of vaccines are readily available in an equitable fashion.” It is interesting to note that Minister Ahmad has made several official visits to India since 2017, engaging with Indian government officials, civil society and policymakers in his earlier role as Aviation Minister and in his current portfolio.
In the continued dialogue, exchange of technical expertise between government departments, and the sustained vigour of keeping the trade discussions alive in the post-Brexit timeline, UK has shown that its partnership with India is valuable and high-priority. The recent efforts between the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and UK diplomatic missions during the national lockdown due to the coronavirus saw emergency flights taking over 16,000 British nationals safely back to the UK.
Besides, continued consular assistance programmes between the nations, bilateral cooperation across the healthcare, education, fintech and defence sectors was bolstered recently with increased dialogue, ministerial discussions and technical knowledge sharing that saw three British Prime Ministers, many members of the Royal family, and the civil service make official visits to India in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The Conservative Party’s friendly approach to trade with India, especially under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has also been well received. Johnson met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G7 summit in August last year. This was immediately after Johnson was elected and the third such meeting in quick succession following on from meetings with David Cameron and Theresa May. As is widely known, India is the third largest investor in the UK with a significant presence in the British economy and nearly 900 Indian companies have their offices in the UK that acts as the base for global operations.
Interestingly, the JETCO –– a high level business to government Joint Economic and Trade Committee –– has engaged on multiple trade and innovation themes in the past three years and both countries have agreed to set up three new bilateral working groups to tackle barriers to trade in specific sectors that include healthcare. These working groups will be run by the UK India Business Council, with CII and FICCI representing Indian businesses.
What further signals enhanced relations between the countries is also the gradual shift in power dynamics, with the UK acknowledging that India is a vital trade and diplomatic partner.
Interestingly, Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Ruchi Ghanshyam, who retired in May this year, was quoted as saying that the UK-India relationship is “poised for an even bigger take-off’’. Here’s what Ghanshyam said to the Deccan Herald, "This depth was even more visible during this time of crisis, when we worked closely together to assist with the repatriation of each other's nationals, facilitated the supply of life-saving medicines to the UK and set up collaborations between institutions and businesses to find meaningful solutions."
All of these efforts at meaningful diplomatic engagement have unlocked a clear roadmap of how collaborative work in vaccine development can bring results and create a lasting impact not just for the pharma research sector but also for bilateral relations between our countries.
(Prachi Jatania is a former journalist, now working at the intersection of public affairs, communications, and content marketing. She is a University of Cambridge alumnus, has worked for the UK government in India & crafts strategic communications advisory for global brands and non-profits).