Sep 13, 2021 - World

Scoop: The Modi shot campaign

Illustration of India's flag, with syringes forming the spokes of the wheel symbol.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Biden administration is quietly pressuring India to restart vaccine exports with plans to offer a higher-profile role for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an upcoming COVID-19 global summit in New York if he agrees to release vaccines soon, sources with direct knowledge of the high-level discussions told Axios.

Why it matters: India is the world's biggest vaccine maker. In March, Modi halted exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine — one of the cheapest on the market — because the virus was ravaging his own population.

  • Convincing Modi to renew his vaccine supply to the world — through the global vaccination organization COVAX — is an important part of the Biden administration's strategy to mitigate the international spread of the virus.
  • Vaccinating as much of the developing world, as quickly as possible, is in America's vital interest, because the uncontrolled spread of the virus inevitably produces more dangerous variants.

An administration official acknowledged discussing vaccine exports but denied they're tied to Modi's upcoming participation.

  • "We have regularly been communicating with [the] government of India in bilateral and multilateral channels to discuss vaccine supply and inquire about timeline for exports, and these conversations are not tied to a specific summit or engagement," the U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity.

The backstory: The U.S. itself effectively banned its own vaccine exports for months until it had enough supply for all Americans. It's also reserved hundreds of millions of doses for boosters, complicating its position as a proponent of dose-sharing.

  • Modi's government faced internal criticism for allowing millions of doses to be exported before the emergence of a second wave it failed to anticipate.
  • Now, six months later, more than half of India's eligible population has received at least one shot, according to official data, making it more palatable to resume exports.

Behind the lines: Biden officials understand vaccine diplomacy is a delicate subject with the Indians. In internal meetings, high-ranking Biden officials decided to take a soft approach to Modi.

  • Biden plans to host a COVID-19 summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings next week, with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy hinting the president will make some new announcements ahead of the summit.
  • Biden aides decided against trying to strong-arm Modi by conditioning his participation on his willingness to release vaccines to COVAX. He'll be welcomed regardless of his decision, according to one of the sources.

The big picture: COVAX, the UN-backed program aimed at addressing coronavirus vaccine inequality, has struggled to reach its goals.

  • Last week, it announced it expected to have only 1.425 billion doses available at the end of this year, down from the 1.9 billion the organization expected it would have in an estimate provided in June.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has been critical of wealthier nations like the United States for prioritizing booster shots ahead of increasing initial donations for residents in lower-income nations.
  • The United States has already donated 140 million doses and pledged to purchase 500 million doses from Pfizer for COVAX distribution, a White House official said.

Go deeper: Officials want countries participating in the summit to pledge that COVAX should be the main vehicle to distribute vaccines.

  • Despite its failure to fully cooperate in the international investigations into the origins of COVID-19, China is being invited, the sources said.
  • Officials also plan to invite Russia, which has largely abstained from the COVAX initiative.
  • Team Biden's goal is to convince wealthier countries to donate — and not sell — any surplus supplies.
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