U.S.-India Healthcare Cooperation

The inauguration of a new administration in the backdrop of a global pandemic seems to be an opportune moment to begin a new phase of U.S.-India healthcare cooperation. The lessons of the current pandemic can serve as a sobering reminder to be better prepared for future pandemics. And establishing a U.S-India Strategic Health Dialogue can be especially useful in this regard. The pandemic also provides a new impetus for the two countries to resolve their trade disputes and work toward co-creating innovative healthcare products and technologies. 

In one of his first statements following the 2020 presidential election, President-elect Biden pledged a renewed commitment to the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), working with country partners and international organizations to tackle the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and prepare for future ones. India can be a key partner as the incoming administration outlines this strategy. With its unmatched vaccine production capacity, India’s contribution can be vital in ensuring that vaccinations are widely available across the developing world, counteracting the “vaccine nationalism”  of China and Russia. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the imbalance in global supply chains for essential medical products, especially personal protective equipment or PPEs. India is a natural partner as a dependable and cost-effective manufacturing hub, addressing a strategic challenge that the GHSA needs to resolve. In both cases, this is a win-win for both the United States and India as the two countries learn their lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic and prepare better for future global health challenges that are almost certain to emerge in the coming years.

Future Pandemic Preparedness: In the medium term, shared global health objectives can foster greater cooperation at the technical level. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to upgrade India’s disease surveillance and tracking and risk mitigation capacity, as it has done for the United States. One clear objective of the Biden administration can be to provide technical assistance to set up an Indian Center for Disease Control and Prevention (I-CDC) on the lines of the African CDC set up after the Ebola pandemic. This institution could be the hub of technical assistance for other south and Southeast Asian countries, which have historically suffered the immediate impact of any emerging pandemic and have important lessons to share on how to control them. 

Resolving Trade Disputes: As the world enters the post-pandemic phase over the next year, there will be a need to focus on more long-term challenges that have often negatively impacted U.S.-India cooperation in the health sector. It is expected that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry will emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis and increase its influence on the Biden administration’s policies, especially to protect itself from competition from India’s generic drug manufacturers. The dispute on India’s price cap on medical implants remains outstanding, which is symptomatic of the lack of a strategic vision for health sector cooperation as a whole. As the new administration takes office, both sides should be willing to look for solutions, balancing national priorities while at the same time unlocking the considerable potential to increase trade in medical and pharmaceutical products that clearly exists between the two countries.

Co-creating Innovative Products and Technologies: The Covid-19 pandemic has set the stage for a quantum leap in new health products and technologies. Doctors’ visits are moving online, increasing the demand for remote diagnostic tools, data warehousing, and patient management platforms. Personal health monitoring is now commonplace through easy-to-use devices that will increasingly be connected to virtual health providers with access to the data. Creating innovative products will require large reservoirs of data, which in turn would require regulation on medical data use and privacy protection. 

Digital health technologies provide a significant opportunity for U.S.-India cooperation. On its part, India will benefit from more intensive use of technology in healthcare, both in terms of expanding access to public health services as well as reducing the cost of prevention and treatment of common diseases. At the same time, U.S. companies can have access to India’s highly skilled technical personnel, as well as domain knowledge of appropriate health services in emerging markets. And while India’s consumer base provides a data-rich environment to test product innovations, it could draw on U.S. expertise vis-à-vis consumer and data protection regulatory frameworks that can foster innovative health technologies over the long term.

Establishing the U.S.-India Strategic Health Dialogue: Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need for a long-term vision for U.S.-India cooperation in the health sector. This could set the stage for a strategic health dialogue to develop and drive a mutually beneficial agenda to improve health systems not only for the two countries, but for the world. The Strategic Health Dialogue can address challenges posed by a rapidly changing world with emerging epidemiological, biological and environmental threats, demographic shifts, and technological opportunities. 
 
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Anit Mukherjee
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies