by Gemma Handy
A ’friendly gift’ is the ethos behind a massive donation of Covid-19 vaccines from India – enough to inoculate one in five of Antigua and Barbuda’s population.
The 40,000 AstraZeneca doses are expected to arrive on island within a fortnight, India’s High Commissioner to the twin island nation, Dr KJ Srinivasa, told Observer.
And the shots – to be given in two doses, a few weeks apart – are also set to be shipped here free of charge, with the cost picked up by the Indian government.
These are in addition to the 5,000 doses which arrived into VC Bird International Airport yesterday as a gift from Dominica.
India began exports of Covishield – the subcontinent’s name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the UK – last month. In just three weeks it has already delivered millions of complimentary doses of the potentially life-saving jab worldwide.
The Asian nation of 1.3 billion people is a vaccine powerhouse, home to several major manufacturers which collectively make around 60 percent of the world’s vaccines.
India launched the world’s largest inoculation drive in January in the spirit of ‘maitri’, the Hindi word for ‘friendship’.
“India’s strength in health and pharmaceuticals is rated highly across the world,” Dr Srinivasa said. “We are home to two of the biggest vaccine manufacturers – the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. Even before coronavirus, these two contributed 45-50 percent of the world’s vaccines.
“So when the virus began, India’s manufacturers started work right away.”
The Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, is said to be producing more than 50 million doses of Covishield a month. The shot is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus – known as an adenovirus – from chimpanzees.
Cabinet announced on Wednesday night that it had requested an additional 100,000 doses of Covishield for purchase from India. On top of that, 40,000 doses are also earmarked for Antigua and Barbuda under the World Health Organization-led COVAX scheme.
Together, the 180,000 doses will be enough for almost the entire population, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Lionel Hurst said, while adding a caveat that approval for the extra 100,000 had yet to be granted.
India’s crusade to help save the world from the virus which has already claimed more than two million lives is in sync with an inherent sense of duty, Dr Srinivasa explained.
Caricom countries are to receive 500,000 Covishield vaccines, many of which have already arrived. On Tuesday, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley thanked her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi for his “quick, decisive and magnanimous” action in sending a large supply.
“This was a very special moment for all Barbadians,” Mottley said in a tweet.
Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit also showered praise on PM Modi for New Delhi’s swift response to his request for 70,000 doses, enough to shield nearly half his country’s 72,000-strong population from the virus. It was from that gift that the nature isle in turn sent 5,000 doses to Antigua.
“India is doing this despite the fact we have our own challenges; it’s an extension of our friendship,” Dr Srinivasa, who is also India’s High Commissioner to Guyana and St Kitts and Nevis, continued.
“The media have labelled it vaccine diplomacy. But we don’t see it as such; for us, it’s vaccine friendship – or maitri.
“We don’t demand anything in return,” he added. “We feel happy that we are able to contribute to countries across the world. When we see them express gratitude we feel our mission is complete, we don’t need anything else.”
The 5,000 doses from Dominica arrived into Antigua via a Regional Security System (RSS) plane at 1pm Thursday.
They will be used to vaccinate – via two doses – 2,500 frontline workers including hospital medics, police, Immigration and Customs officers, and Defence Force staff. Teachers with co-morbidities and vulnerable students will also be prioritised.