US to send 'strike team' to India to help with Covid-19 crisis

White House says US will share entire stock of AstraZeneca vaccines with the world once they clear federal safety reviews

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US officials on Monday said Washington was dispatching a “strike team” of health experts and officials to India to assist the South Asian giant as it struggles with a devastating surge in Covid-19 cases.

The team would work with India's public health experts on several fronts including laboratory services, epidemiology, infection prevention and vaccine rollout, a senior White House official told reporters after President Joe Biden spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The US will also send equipment to India including the drug Remdesevir, rapid-test supplies, personal protective gear and raw materials for the production of AstraZeneca vaccines, the official said.

Washington is looking to share its own supply of AstraZeneca jabs with other nations, though the official noted India has not yet made a specific request.

Asked if the US is planning to ban travel from India, another official said current measures entail testing and quarantine for anyone entering the US.

“We are always looking to see if we can add a layer,” the official said without elaborating.

As to Mr Biden’s call with Mr Modi, US officials said it was “warm and positive”.

The second wave of Covid-19 currently sweeping India has brought the total number of cases to over 17 million.

On Sunday, the country recorded 352,991 cases and more than 2,800 deaths.

The White House told The Associated Press on Monday that as many as 60 million US doses of AstraZeneca will be shared with other countries once the vaccine clears federal safety reviews. They are expected to be available for export in the coming months.

The move greatly expands on Washington's action last month to share about four million doses with Mexico and Canada.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is widely in use around the world, but not yet authorised by the FDA.

The plan comes as the White House is increasingly assured about the supply of the three vaccines being administered in the US, particularly following the restart of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson jab at the weekend.

“Given the strong portfolio of vaccines that the US already has and that have been authorised by the FDA, and given that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorised for use in the US, we do not need to use [it] here during the next several months,” White House Covid-19 co-ordinator Jeff Zients said.

About 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been produced, but have yet to pass FDA review to “meet its expectations for product quality,” Mr Zients said.

That process could be completed in the next several weeks. About 50 million more doses are in various stages of production and could be available to ship in May and June, pending FDA sign-off.

AstraZeneca’s doses in the US were produced at an Emergent BioSolutions plant in Baltimore that has come under increased regulatory and public scrutiny after botching batches of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The US pressed Johnson & Johnson to take over the plant and, as part of the effort to ensure the quality of newly produced vaccines, directed the facility to stop making the AstraZeneca shot. AstraZeneca is still looking to identify a new US production centre for future doses.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine was initially expected to be the first to receive federal emergency authorisation and the US government ordered enough for 150 million Americans before issues with the vaccine’s clinical trial held up clearance.

The company’s 30,000-person US trial didn’t complete enrolment until January and it has still not filed for an emergency use authorisation with the FDA.