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Coronavirus

US assembles 'strike team' to combat variant surge in India

Biden, Blinken and Campbell welcome private sector's help as new cases top 350,000

People wearing protective face masks wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai on April 26.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/NEW DELHI -- President Joe Biden and his closest aides scrambled to mobilize the U.S. government Monday to offer aid to India, the Quad partner struggling to contain the world's worst coronavirus outbreak as measured by daily new cases.

The U.S. will deploy a "strike team" of public health experts as well as such medical resources as vaccine materials to India, senior Biden administration officials told reporters on a call.

"We are in close touch with Indian officials at all levels, and we're also closely coordinating with our allies, friends and Quad partners about how we can collectively support India" in its time of need, one official said.

On a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that day, Biden committed to having the two countries work closely together in the fight against the coronavirus. He pledged "America's steadfast support for the people of India who have been impacted by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases," a White House readout said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have also discussed India's coronavirus outbreak in calls with their counterparts in the past week.

Blinken met virtually with leaders of American business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S.-India Business Council on Monday to discuss how the countries can leverage the expertise and capabilities of America's private sector to support urgent COVID-19 relief efforts in India, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in an announcement.

Blinken, along with National Security Council Indo-Pacific Affairs Coordinator Kurt Campbell, "provided an update on U.S. assistance and welcomed coordination with U.S. industry," Price's statement read.

India's recent surge in cases is driven by a variant believed to be more infectious than the original. New cases have been breaking global records, topping 350,000 on Sunday. In the capital region of Delhi, they have swelled to around 24,000 per day.

The outbreak also risks sparking fresh waves of cases elsewhere in the world.

The U.S. says it is providing a range of emergency assistance to India, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials and therapeutics.

"We remember India's generosity to the United States in the early days of the pandemic, when India offered medications to us as our hospitals ... were strained," the senior Biden administration official said.

U.S. commercial suppliers of the federally approved COVID-19 treatment remdesivir have been identified "that are immediately available" to help relieve the suffering of patients in India, a second senior Biden administration official said on Monday's call. "And we've identified rapid diagnostic testing supplies as well as personal protective equipment that will be available to be transferred to India immediately."

The U.S. will also divert its own order for raw materials for the production of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine to the Serum Institute of India.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to be approved in the U.S., but the country has produced some doses to prepare for a range of scenarios. Not expecting to need the vaccine in the next few months, the White House said Monday that it is looking at options to share AstraZeneca doses with other countries as they become available.

India has also specifically requested Washington to help provide oxygen and related supplies, which are "very high on their priority list," the second senior Biden administration official said.

The State Department is working to contract oxygen supplies, including cylinders, while the Defense Department and the Agency for International Development are pursuing options to provide oxygen generation systems, according to the official. Washington is also exploring options to provide oxygen concentrations and ventilators, she said.

In addition to shipping supplies, the U.S. will also deploy a strike team of public health experts to India, where they will work closely with the American Embassy and with Indian health officials and experts. Areas of collaboration will include laboratory services, surveillance and epidemiology, bioinformatics for sequencing and modeling of the disease, infection prevention and control, vaccine rollout, and risk communication.

The U.S. International Development Finance Corp. announced separately in March that it would work with Hyderabad-based manufacturer Biological E to finance an expansion in vaccine production capacity.

Indian hospitals face dire shortages of oxygen and beds amid the surge in cases, and deaths are rising.

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi's chief minister, has announced that a citywide lockdown imposed April 19 would be extended another week, to May 3.

Countries beyond the U.S. have also offered support in recent days.

The U.K. sent an initial shipment of ventilators and other medical equipment to India on Sunday, according to the BBC. France and the European Union have also announced plans to help.

Pakistan says it has offered ventilators, X-ray machines and other supplies to India. Though relations between the two South Asian neighbors are fraught, Islamabad worries that the outbreak could cross the border if left unchecked.

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