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India To Pump Billions Into Virus Fight As Biden Sets Vaccine Target

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People queue up to get inoculated with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination facility in Mumbai on May 4, 2021, as India’s total Covid caseload soared past 20 million. (Photo by Punit PARANJPE / AFP)

India on Wednesday pledged billions of dollars to boost its flagging vaccine programme, as President Joe Biden said 70 percent of American adults should have had at least one coronavirus shot by July 4.

With vaccines among the main weapons in the fight against the pandemic, pharma giant Pfizer reported a huge jump in profits based on sales of its Covid-19 shot as a growing campaign called for patent waivers so poorer nations can get quicker access.

Among the leaders of that campaign is India, which reported nearly 3,800 new deaths Wednesday — a national record — and more than 380,000 fresh cases as it grapples with one of the world’s worst outbreaks.

“The devastating speed with which the virus affects different regions of the country has to be matched by swift and wide-ranging actions,” said Reserve Bank of India governor Shaktikanta Das, as he announced $6.7 billion in cheap financing for vaccine makers, hospitals and other health firms.

Experts have warned that case numbers will keep rising until the end of May and could reach 500,000 new infections a day.

India’s underfunded health system has struggled to cope with this wave, with patients dying in hospital parking lots due to a lack of beds and medical oxygen.

The government expanded its massive vaccination programme to all adults last week, but many states are facing shortages.

While New Delhi and other major cities have imposed curfews and other restrictions, the government has resisted opposition calls for a nationwide lockdown as it tries to avoid the economic downturn that accompanied such restrictions last year.

“The poor have nothing left,” Vimala Devi, a 61-year-old homemaker in Delhi, told AFP on Tuesday.

“We are just left to die on the streets.”

‘Terrible error’

Vaccine shortages are not an issue in the United States, however, where President Joe Biden on Tuesday said he wanted 70 percent of American adults to have received at least one shot by the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

Biden also said his administration was “ready to move immediately” if regulators authorise the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.

But the plan to jab teens is controversial, with many experts questioning the wisdom of devoting limited vaccine supplies to a low-risk group instead of sharing it to target high-risk groups around the world.

“I think if you vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds in the United States before you vaccinate 70-year-olds globally, you’re making a terrible error,” UCSF physician and epidemiologist Vinay Prasad told AFP.

And Priya Sampathkumar, chair of Infection Prevention & Control at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, said: “Vaccinating more people in the US is not going to help us if the variants in India, Nepal and South Asia get out of control and hit our shores.

The United States and other wealthy G7 nations are under growing pressure to help poorer nations, including by waiving intellectual property and patent rules for vaccines, at least temporarily.

President Biden said he had not made a decision on whether to support a waiver but that the United States was moving “as quickly as we can” to export doses.

Illustrating the value of such patents and intellectual property, pharma giant Pfizer on Tuesday sharply increased its 2021 profit projections, citing much higher Covid-19 vaccine sales.

Bolsonaro under fire

The pandemic has claimed more than 3.2 million lives worldwide since it first emerged in late 2019, and the fight against Covid-19 has been complicated by the emergence of new variants as the virus circulates around the globe.

The British government said Wednesday it is spending 29.3 million pounds ($40.6 million) on new coronavirus vaccine laboratories at its secretive Porton Down research facility to “future-proof the country from the threat of new variants”.

In hard-hit Brazil, the government came under further pressure on Tuesday as a former health minister said President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly ignored warnings that his Covid-19 response risked causing a collapse of the health system.

The far-right leader has been criticised for his coronavirus scepticism and what opponents say is his poor handling of the crisis, with more than 400,000 lives lost to Covid-19 in Brazil — the second-highest death toll in the world.

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