India becomes world’s COVID epicenter but is home to biggest vaccine maker. What happened?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

A patient wearing an oxygen mask is wheeled inside a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 26, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Amit Dave

India is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday: “It's a terrible situation that's going on in India and other low and middle income countries, and there is more we can do. And I believe you will see shortly that all these things that we're talking about are on the table and we will be moving towards that.” 

The Biden administration announced on Sunday that it plans to send the country more medical aid, such as raw vaccine materials and ventilators. Today it said the U.S. will send around 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to other countries, likely including India. 

For four straight days, India has broken the global daily record for new cases, but experts say the actual number of new infections is probably much higher. The country’s health care system is collapsing. Hospitals are running out of oxygen and morgues are full. 

The situation facing India right now is a perfect storm of multiple factors: a new double mutant variant in the country, surging superspreader events, and a sense of complacency among the Indian government. That’s all according to Yasmeen Serhan, a staff writer with The Atlantic.

“Just last month, the country's health minister declared that India was in the endgame of the pandemic. And today, it's the global epicenter. A lot can change in just a few weeks,” Serhan tells KCRW. 

She adds that young people — who are thought to be more resilient — are contracting COVID. “They happen to be the segment of the population that are more out and about and doing things, seeing their friends. What's happening in India really proves that this virus can affect anyone.”

Serhan explains that although India is home to the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world — the Serum Institute of India — it’s shared doses with an estimated 92 low and middle income countries.

Now the Serum Institute will focus primarily on India’s domestic needs, developing vaccines for the 1.3 billion residents there. But that could have repercussions on the global vaccine market, Serhan points out, due to the existing need for doses elsewhere.

She says there’s a lesson to be learned from India’s COVID-19 crisis, and why other countries, including the U.S., could be compelled to support India in the coming days. 

“This pandemic doesn't end anywhere until it ends everywhere. So long as there's an outbreak where variants are allowed to emerge and spread, there will be a threat.”

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