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Rep. Khanna Calls For U.S. To Provide More COVID-19 Assistance To India

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much more can the United States help India? The U.S. is now sending oxygen for COVID patients, raw materials for vaccines and other supplies for a country now leading the world in daily new infections. Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California joins us. He is vice chair of the Congressional India Caucus.

Congressman, good morning.

RO KHANNA: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Some people always ask this about sending aid abroad, so you should have a chance to just answer it directly. Is it our business to be helping India any more than we are?

KHANNA: It's in our self-interest for two reasons. One, if the COVID outbreak continues in India, you're going to have new variants emerge, and those variants could defeat the vaccine. And that's a very dangerous situation. Second, that COVID could spread, and we aren't fully vaccinated. And if some of that comes to the United States, it would be a very dangerous situation. So it's a moral thing to do but also a strategic thing to do.

INSKEEP: Is it also just a bit of COVID diplomacy? India is a vitally important country that the United States thinks about when it's thinking about confronting China, for example.

KHANNA: Absolutely. It's doubling down in our support and strategic partnership with India at a time that India will remember for generations. I mean, I represent a district in the Bay Area with a large Indian American population, and there is not a family in my district that is Indian American that doesn't know someone in India who is being affected. It's a extraordinary crisis. I mean, people are reading about cremations on the streets. The numbers are grossly underestimating what is actually taking place there in terms of deaths and cases. This is the time for us to act and solidify that relationship.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk through what the U.S. can do. The U.S. has been criticized for being a little slower than other countries but is now allowing vaccine-making materials to go from the U.S. to India, sending over oxygen for COVID patients. What else needs to happen?

KHANNA: Well, I give President Biden and Secretary Blinken a lot of credit. They are sending extra vaccines. They are sending critical supplies. Secretary Blinken has convened a lot of the tech leaders to set up platforms so that the diaspora can contribute directly to hospitals there. The one thing that still needs to happen is to ask Pfizer, Moderna, J&J to license their vaccine recipes so you can have manufacturing of those vaccines in India and, frankly, in a hundred other countries that desperately need that vaccine.

INSKEEP: Is that really necessary? Because I will note that a lot of pharmaceutical companies have protested that the intellectual property rights are not what's holding up vaccine-making in India necessarily.

KHANNA: It is necessary. It's true that there is a manufacturing bottleneck. But the reality is it's very hard for countries to have the investment or start that manufacturing without the vaccine recipe. And that is something we should do. We spent almost $2 billion for Pfizer purchasing the vaccines. We gave Moderna some of the IP through the NIH. So this is something that we need to do.

INSKEEP: Is there something particularly tricky here, that the United States has vaccine on hand, AstraZeneca vaccine on hand, if I'm not mistaken, 10 million doses with with 50 million on the way? They're not approved for use in the United States. It's effectively spare vaccine, but it can't be sent to India either at the moment.

KHANNA: Well, AstraZeneca has been approved in other countries. The challenge, as you know, with our spare supply is that they were manufactured in some cases in the Baltimore facility that had issues. So the president's absolutely correct that we need to make sure they're safe, that they work, and then we can ship them to India. But while that would be a good start, it's 60 million vaccines, and India is a country of 1.4 billion people, and the world needs billions of vaccines. So if we don't get contract manufacturing from Pfizer, Moderna, we will have a real challenge in vaccinating the world. And that ultimately will hurt the United States as new variants emerge.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned vaccinating the world. Are we entering a very strange phase here in that the United States is mostly vaccinated and keeps getting more so, and we can feel more comfortable and start taking off masks, apparently, and other nations are much more like India right now, nations all around the world?

KHANNA: We've (inaudible) a tremendous job in getting our population vaccinated. We're leading the world in that. But the reality is, if you have new outbreaks and you have new variants, all it takes is one mutation to have something that defeats the vaccine, and then we get (inaudible) square one. The other thing is, as America, we pride ourselves of leading the world. And it is not a good look if we are completely vaccinated, and you have 100 countries out there that haven't even really begun the process. So we can do this. Pfizer can get paid. Moderna can get paid. J&J can get paid. And they can allow for contract manufacturers. And then also, frankly, we need to set up a global fund because of what you pointed out, to actually have the global manufacturing know-how. That's as critical as...

INSKEEP: Congressman, got to stop you there, but thank you so much.

KHANNA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Congressman Ro Khanna of California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.