WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration's top medical adviser, has said that it is imperative for India to collaborate with other countries and companies to ramp up its vaccine production capability to vaccinate the country's huge population against COVID-19.
Calling India as one of the best vaccine producers in the world, the leading American infectious disease expert said, "It's a very, very large country with a population of about 1.4 billion people, you only have a couple of percentage of the people who are fully vaccinated and over about 10 percent or so that have at least one dose, so you've got to work out arrangements with other countries, other companies at the same time, as ramping up your own capability of making vaccines, because as we all know, India is one of the best if not the biggest vaccine producers in the world."
As several countries have announced support for India's response to a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections that has hit healthcare facilities across the country, Fauci told ANI in an exclusive interview: "There was the immediate issue that needs to be addressed as taking care of the people that are already infected. Getting better supplies of oxygen, oxygen cylinders, oxygen generators, PPEs, therapies like Remdesivir and things like that; the things that the U.S. has helped with, but then probably in the intermediate and long run, you've got to figure out a way how to get as many vaccinations administered to the people of India as possible."
Noting that the B.1.617 mutant first detected in India has been found in over 40 countries including the U.S., he said, "In the ongoing crisis, the rich countries have a moral responsibility to assist those countries that don't have the capability of doing that, particularly the low and middle-income countries."
Fauci, who is the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is also the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden.
Regarding the use of vaccine passports in post-pandemic travel, the infectious diseases expert said that they are not going to be mandated by the U.S. government, is likely not to go forward with them, but also noted that several airlines may say that they will not include persons who don't have vaccination verification.
Speaking on resuming travel with India, Fauci told ANI: "It is really going to depend on the level of infection right now. India has a very, very high level of infection and that would mean that it would be very, very difficult to resume travel there right now."
India is currently dealing with a second COVID-19 wave that has swept through the nation, straining the country's health infrastructure and overburdening frontline medical workers.
Several countries around the globe including the UK, Russia, and the U.S. have extended support to India as it continues to struggle with the increase in its health infrastructure needs.
The Union Health Ministry earlier this month informed that 17.72 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in India till now.
"Ten states account for 66.73 percent of the cumulative doses given so far in the country. More than 34 lakh beneficiaries of age group 18-44 vaccinated under Phase-3 of Vaccination Drive," said Joint Secretary of Union Health Ministry Lav Agarwal.
The country had started the COVID-19 vaccination drive on Jan. 16 with two vaccines – Covishield (Oxford-AstraZeneca's vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India) and Covaxin (manufactured by Bharat Biotech Limited).
The vaccination drive for those between 18 and 45 years of age started in many parts of the country from May 1.
Besides dramatically ramping up its COVID-19 vaccination drive, extending the gap between two doses of Covishield is a "reasonable approach," Fauci added.
The Government of India on May 13 announced that the gap between the first and second doses of the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine has been increased to 12-16 weeks – from the existing 6-8 weeks. This is the second time in three months that Covishield dosage intervals have been widened and this move has once again garnered criticism as a cover-up for not having enough vaccines for the people in India. However, Fauci said that this "extended interval" is beneficial even from the efficacy standpoint.
"The fact that you delay it that long, it is very unlikely that it would have a negative effect on the efficacy of the vaccine. I would not refer to it as a cover-up when you don't have enough vaccines," Fauci told ANI.
When asked about the efficacy of the Sputnik V Vaccine, "I've heard about the Sputnik, that it seems to be quite efficacious, at a high level of close to 90 percent or so," Fauci responded.
Last year, when the U.S. was battling with the surge of COVID-19 cases, the Department of Defense docked two naval warships—USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort—on the coasts of New York and Los Angeles to step up the efforts in combating the virus.
Fauci suggests that India should step up the role of the armed forces in combating COVID-19.
"You can use the military sometimes to get things done quickly that you otherwise in the private sector would not be able to, for example, I know that there's a shortage of hospital beds right now that people who need to be in a hospital or not getting into a hospital because of the shortage of the beds; you can get the military to put up field hospitals, the same way they would during time of war, that could serve as a substitute for the classic hospital." Fauci told ANI.