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Vaccine diplomacy: Indian supplies reach Bangladesh and Nepal

New Delhi's aid shipments come amid China's own COVID outreach to the region

Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the launch of the pan-India COVID-19 vaccination drive via video conference in New Delhi on Jan. 16. (Photo courtesy of Government of India)

NEW DELHI -- India on Thursday dispatched coronavirus vaccines to Bangladesh and Nepal, a day after launching supplies to "neighboring and key partner" nations to help them fight the pandemic when China too is pushing its COVID-19 response outreach in the region.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar confirmed on Twitter that consignments of made-in-India vaccines have reached both Dhaka and Kathmandu. "Putting neighbors first, putting people first!" he added.

Bhutan and the Maldives on Wednesday became the first countries to receive doses numbering 150,000 and 100,000, respectively, of the Serum Institute of India-manufactured Covishield vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. Myanmar and the Seychelles are other countries set to receive the Indian vaccines. As for shipments to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mauritius, New Delhi is awaiting their confirmation of necessary regulatory clearances.

Receiving the vaccine, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering on Wednesday called the vaccines the "new milestone in our battle to beat" the pandemic at home. "It is of unimaginable value when precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs, as opposed to giving out only after you have enough," he said, applauding the gesture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India, which is believed to produce 60% of the world's vaccines in general, on Saturday rolled out its own COVID-19 vaccination drive -- the largest globally aimed at covering 300 million of its 1.3 billion people -- with Covishield and the indigenous Covaxin vaccine developed by local company Bharat Biotech. Both are two-dose vaccines requiring storage temperature of 2 C to 8 C and must be administered 28 days apart.

After the U.S., India has the world's second-highest coronavirus caseload with over 10.6 million infections. COVID-19 has left over 152,000 people dead in the country of more than 1.3 billion people.

"Keeping in view the domestic requirements of the phased rollout, India will continue to supply COVID-19 vaccines to partner countries over the coming weeks and months in a phased manner," its foreign ministry said in a Tuesday statement. "It will be ensured that domestic manufacturers will have adequate stocks to meet domestic requirements while supplying abroad."

India had earlier supplied hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir and paracetamol tablets, as well as diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to a number of countries since the pandemic began early last year.

"In an ongoing effort, India will continue to supply countries all over the world with vaccines," the ministry statement said "This will be calibrated against domestic requirements and international demand and obligations, including under GAVI's Covax facility to developing countries," it added, referring to an international mechanism for sharing COVID-19 vaccines.

For its part, the Maldives said on Wednesday it was happy to receive the vaccine from India. "As always, India stands strong & steadfast, by our side, as 1st responder in any crisis," Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid tweeted.

Earlier, Bangladesh said it would receive two million doses of Covishield from India as a gift. Both Dhaka and the Maldives are also seeking to purchase additional doses from the Serum Institute.

India's vaccine assistance to its neighbors comes amid China's efforts to enhance cooperation with countries in the South Asian region, including Pakistan and Nepal, in dealing with the pandemic. Pakistan, a close Beijing ally, earlier this week approved China's Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use.

However, analysts feel India, described as the pharmacy of the world, has a strategic advantage over China. New Delhi is gifting the COVID-19 vaccine to countries in need, which will further boost India's stature as a vital health care provider, according to Pankaj Jha, a professor of strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University.

"I think India has made a unique head start [as] these vaccines will reach masses who will surely benefit from the Indian gesture," he told Nikkei Asia. China, on the other hand, he said is viewed as "suspect" after having initially denied permission to the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. A WHO team arrived in Wuhan this month and is now in quarantine. Jha added that there also is no clarity on the Chinese vaccine's credibility in terms of transparency in conducting trials.

China has worked to deflect criticism of its response to the pandemic, including by an independent panel under the WHO that recently said Beijing's reaction was slow. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Tuesday defended her country, saying, "China was the first to sound the alarm for the world." She added: "In the face of an unknown virus, even though we didn't have all the information, we made a resolute decision."

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