Biden Scrambles to Help India Check COVID-19

The United States is sending medical gear and oxygen but has yet to unleash its vaccine stockpile.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Family members and relatives wearing protective gear carry the body of a victim who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus towards a pyre at an open crematorium in Bangalore on April 26, 2021.
Family members and relatives wearing protective gear carry the body of a victim who died from COVID-19 toward a pyre at an open crematorium in Bengaluru on April 26. Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images

For weeks, as India’s coronavirus cases began climbing and then suddenly skyrocketing, dozens of countries from around the world offered sympathy and promises of help. From the United States—at least publicly—all India got was radio silence. That snowballed into a nationwide narrative in India about the United States abandoning one of its most important partners in Asia at a time of its greatest need.

Now, President Joe Biden’s administration is scrambling to undo the damage, issuing in recent days readouts on a slew of calls with Indian counterparts and vowing to divert resources and vaccine production supplies to help India as it grapples with a nearly vertical spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke Monday, and the United States pledged to provide therapeutics, raw materials for vaccines, and oxygen—which is in critically short supply in India. The administration also announced plans to release 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses abroad. Over the weekend, Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, spoke with his Indian counterpart and vowed to deliver supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and test kits to India.

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement following Sullivan’s call.

There are two main factors driving the Biden administration’s response to the crisis in India. First and foremost, there’s the public health crisis, which has led to nearly 200,000 deaths in India and strained the already overstretched health care system there, especially the availability of oxygen and vaccines. Public health experts warn that the surge in cases could foster the spread of newer, deadlier strains of the coronavirus that could swiftly spread beyond India’s borders. 

The second layer is more geopolitical. The Biden administration is rushing to parry the charge that it is hoarding vaccines and not doing enough to help New Delhi address the country’s public health crisis. It comes as Modi’s government faces pushback from some political factions for its efforts to strengthen ties with the United States as part of Washington’s efforts to counter China. In that sense, U.S. officials and lawmakers are eager to back America’s allies and partners in their fight against the coronavirus to flex U.S. soft-power muscles abroad. 

“This is one of [the] first major tests of American global leadership in this new era. Every national security expert across [the] political spectrum says that America’s strategic strengths (especially in relation to China) are our allies and partners. Then we need to make that a reality,” Democratic Rep. Andy Kim, a former diplomat, said on Twitter. “Let’s be clear, China and Russia have been using their vaccines to gather favor globally. The U.S. is the strongest country in the world when we lead with our values, but our values mean nothing without action.”

One of the first big U.S. actions regards vaccines. While the United States hasn’t yet released vaccines to India from its stockpile, including tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not approved for public use in the United States, that could soon change. On Monday, White House senior advisor Andy Slavitt tweeted that the United States would release 60 million AstraZeneca doses to other countries as they became available. 

The United States could face more international pressure to ship vaccine doses abroad, given the production capacity it has amassed in the past year. The United States has secured more than 550 million excess vaccine doses, according to a recent study by the ONE Campaign, a global health advocacy organization. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters on Monday that some 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine could be ready to ship in the coming weeks and some 50 million doses in various stages of production could follow in the coming months. 

The official stressed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must ensure all U.S. doses meet quality control standards before being sent abroad. “Because of that process at this moment, contrary to what some may have heard, there are no AstraZeneca doses that have completed and cleared that process to be sent to other countries,” the official said.

“The Biden administration’s decision to begin sharing AstraZeneca vaccines is welcome news and an important first step towards the U.S. sharing more of its massive vaccine stockpile,” Tom Hart, acting CEO of the ONE Campaign, said in a statement. “The Biden administration should build on this welcome first step and start sharing more vaccines as soon as possible.”

As vaccination rates in the United States have sped up in recent months, on Monday India reported 352,991 new cases, the world’s highest daily caseload, pushing the overall number of cases past 5 million for the month—a figure that some worry still might be an undercount. Short supplies of oxygen in major hospitals and supply backlogs have also hampered the response. The surge in the pandemic has also prompted a crackdown on free speech within India, with the government censoring some Twitter posts critical of the response.

The surge has also left U.S. government employees in India in danger, with CNN reporting on Monday that a local outbreak that originated among Indian staff at the embassy in New Delhi has led to more than 100 cases among diplomats and staff. 

The chief of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that wealthy countries hoarding the global supply of vaccines will only exacerbate the effects of the pandemic. 

“[H]ere’s the thing about an inferno: If you hose only one part of it, the rest will keep burning,” he wrote.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Tag: India