India is leveraging its position as a major provider of vaccines to reinforce ties across the South Asian neighbourhood, as it tries to keep China out.
Free shipments of AstraZeneca's vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's biggest producer of vaccines, have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Doses have also been sent to Seychelles and Myanmar.
The shipments are part of the government's “Neighbourhood First” initiative, and will make India the first country to deliver Covid-19 vaccines across South Asia – ahead of China, which has promised but not so far delivered, the World Health Organization (WHO) and GAVI's vaccine alliance programme.
“India's vaccine diplomacy is also designed to create more space for itself as China pushes to expand its influence in South Asia,” said former diplomat Pinak Ranjan Chakravaty.
“It's an opportunity to leverage vaccine diplomacy, to remind India's neighbours that India will remain the first responder in a disaster situation.”
Officials say Delhi is considering giving away anywhere from 12 to 20 million shots to its neighbours in the first round of assistance over the next month.
Bangladesh's Health and Family Welfare Ministry announced it had ordered two million doses of Covishield, as part of a “friendly gesture”.
Under an agreement signed last November, Beximco, one of the largest Bangladeshi pharmaceutical companies, will also procure about 30 million vaccines from the SII on a commercial basis.
New Delhi is keen on mending ties with Dhaka, especially with the enactment of the controversial citizenship law passed last year. The legislation, seen as anti-Muslim, grants citizenship rights to minorities from Muslim majority neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh and Pakistan.
But Bangladesh has also held phase-3 trials for the Sinovac vaccine from India's main rival China. The project has for now stalled for funding reasons.
Similarly, China has also tried to get a foothold with Nepal, which has also has outstanding issues with India. Beijing offered its Sinopharm shot to Kathmandu, but it is still awaiting approval for the roll-out.
There was no such delay for Delhi, with a first vaccine shipment expected soon, after a deal struck by Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali last week for around a million doses.
SII and Bharat Biotech have reportedly stockpiled more than 70 million doses of vaccines and will scale up production to meet demands.
'Pharmacy of the world'
India also organised several training programmes for medical workers in neighbouring countries to enhance their clinical skills.
“India is today regarded as the 'pharmacy of the world', in recognition of its established capacity as a producer of medicines," virologist, Dr Jacob John tells RFI. "India produces over 60 percent of the global vaccine requirement.
“The fact is that these countries are depending on us to vaccinate their populations. The manufacturers will also likely seal commercial arrangements with them,” he added.
The Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), India's drugs regulatory authority, has approved two coronavirus vaccines – Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and the locally developed vaccine COVAXIN, produced by Bharat Biotech.
Several other countries, including Brazil, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Dominican Republic and South Africa, have already made official requests to receive vaccines from India.