India Seeks Coronavirus Advice from Dr. Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, testifies during a Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing on the federal government response to COVID-19 on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via …
Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP

India’s ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, held a virtual meeting on Tuesday with U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony Fauci to discuss India’s coronavirus crisis and the progress of its vaccination program.

“This was the first time that a top Indian government official had a meeting with Fauci, who is the top adviser to President Joe Biden on the pandemic,” the Times of India (TOI) reported.

According to Sandhu, he and Fauci discussed “virus variants, vaccines, response mechanisms, and joint efforts including research and development.”

Sandhu also spoke with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday. Sandhu said he deeply appreciated the “strong solidarity and offer of support of DHS for India in facing the Covid challenge.”

TOI noted that Indian-American congressional representatives Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi are pleading for more U.S. assistance to India. 

Politico on Tuesday credited Khanna, Krishnamoorthi, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other Indian-American politicians, activists, and political donors with getting President Joe Biden’s “ear” and bringing more American vaccines and supplies to India in its hour of crisis. Politico wrote that Indian-American civil groups have built “a bona fide political juggernaut” with skyrocketing voter turnout, most of it leaning Democrat:

Sixty-five to 70 percent of Indian Americans voted for Biden in 2020, roughly similar to the percentage that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Georgia, a state that voted blue in 2020 for the first time in nearly 30 years, the surge in Asian American turnout far exceeded the margin of victory. And of the record amounts of cash that Indian American voters poured into the last election cycle, most went to Democrats.

That helps explain the swiftness of the administration’s response. “In a 48-hour period you saw the U.S government go from 0 to 60,” Vaishnav said, recalling the days just prior to the administration’s announcement that it would send raw materials and other aid to India. “That’s because Indian Americans mobilized. They went on social media, they called everyone they knew in government, they called everyone they contributed money to.”

It’s also not just Indian Americans’ firepower as voters and donors that may have nudged the Biden administration into action. There are now enough Indian Americans serving in Congress—Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal and, before she was tapped as vice president, Kamala Harris—to warrant a name: the “samosa” caucus, whose members all publicly advocated for action to assist India.

Vaccines are one of the trickiest issues in U.S.-Indian cooperation on the pandemic. The Biden administration took action in March to reserve certain vital U.S.-made supplies for American vaccine manufacturers, preventing shipments to India. India, the “pharmacy to the world,” has immense production capacity but also an enormous need for vaccines; it has already restricted exports to meet surging domestic demand. Politicians in both countries are understandably reluctant to discuss the matter bluntly, but both sides had good reason to fear anger from their voters if they did not prioritize domestic needs.

Last week, after the U.K., France, and Germany pledged aid to India, the Biden administration agreed to make raw materials available for Indian vaccine production. Biden said on Wednesday that the U.S. will send about 10 percent of its vaccine stockpile to other countries by the Fourth of July, including India. The White House said over $100 million in assistance is headed for India, including test kits and protective equipment. 

“Our U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai is going to the WTO next week to start talks on how we can get this vaccine more widely distributed, more widely licensed, more widely shared,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Sunday when asked if the Biden administration might ease patent protections on U.S.-made coronavirus vaccines to help hard-hit countries like India.

Adar Poonwalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India (SII), said on Sunday he expects India’s vaccine shortage to last for months. Critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to the crisis say his government ignored warnings of a dangerous new Covid-19 variant and failed to ramp up medical production in time to meet the enormous surge in cases. 

The conversation between Ambassador Sandhu and Dr. Fauci clearly has symbolic value for India, but many Americans are critical of Fauci’s ever-shifting coronavirus advice – among other things, he was notoriously against masks before he was for them, later claimed he was deliberately lying about the effectiveness of masks to protect the supply for medical workers, and has lately been musing about keeping even vaccinated Americans masked for a year and more to come, including children

Even as Americans hope to see light at the end of the tunnel, entertaining pleas to be vaccinated so normal life can resume nationwide, Fauci said on Tuesday that thinks America is barely “halfway through” the pandemic crisis, at best in the “bottom of the sixth” in a baseball game against the virus.

Fauci’s most trenchant critics accuse him of being motivated more by politics and hunger for celebrity than science. Measured objectively, his track record on coronavirus advice is not equal to the crisis facing India – a new “wave” of the coronavirus whose complex causes could include everything from a legitimately new and more dangerous mutation of the virus, to unfortunate public policy enacted after Modi declared victory over Chinese coronavirus in January. 

India has plenty of politicians and little need to import celebrity doctors. What it probably needs more than anything are mRNA vaccines like Pfizer’s, which are proving much more effective against coronavirus variants than vaccines made with the older inert-virus technology because it is much more difficult for mutated viruses to sneak past the protection generated by mRNA shots.

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