Gates, Poonawalla at the center of vaccine controversy in India

India has stood out among most of the world’s countries by not offering blanket immunity to manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines.

In 2021, the Indian government’s negotiations with Pfizer fell through when Indian regulators refused to provide it legal protection via indemnity.

Such protection was not provided to the three COVID-19 vaccines that received an emergency use authorization in India: Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V.

This did not occur without dissent, however. Poonawalla, as head of the India-based Serum Institute, had called for protection from lawsuits for COVID vaccine injuries.

The Yadav v. Maharashtra complaint describes Poonawalla and other personnel of the Serum Institute, which manufactures the Covishield vaccine, as “complicit” in Kadve’s death, and as “habitual offenders of earning profits by selling vaccines with death-causing side effects,” placing them “in the category of mass murderers.”

However, the controversy over Gates’ and Poonawalla’s vaccine-related work in India spans beyond the Yadav v. Maharashtra case.

In April 2021, for instance, Gates and the BMGF received criticism for their refusal to share COVID-19 vaccine technologies with India and other developing countries.

This criticism prompted the CEO of the BMGF, Mark Suzman, to reverse course and support a temporary waiver on vaccine-related intellectual property.

In 2006, the BMGF co-founded, with the Indian government, the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) as a public-private partnership. The PHFI is funded, in part, by pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Merck.

The PHFI has also been active in producing research related to COVID-19, with at least one such study, titled “Impact of Crop Diversity on Dietary Diversity among Farmers in India during the COVID-19,” also crossing over into the agricultural realm.

In Gates’ aforementioned Nov. 2019 visit to India, he heaped praise on three Indian vaccine manufacturers, including the Serum Institute.

But Gates’ connection to the Serum Institute goes beyond verbal praise. Since November 2012, the Serum Institute has been the recipient of BMGF grants — in that initial instance for the development of an HPV vaccine. Gates toured the Serum Institute earlier that year.

The Serum Institute received a $4 million grant from the BMGF in October 2020 to support research and development as part of the COVID-19 response, while in August 2020, the Serum Institute, in partnership with the BMGF and GAVI-The Vaccine Alliance, agreed to produce up to 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income countries.

Also known as the “Vaccine Alliance,” GAVI proclaims a mission to “save lives and protect people’s health,” and states it “helps vaccinate almost half the world’s children against deadly and debilitating infectious diseases.”

GAVI was established in 1999, with the BMGF as one of its co-founders and one of its four permanent board members.

GAVI then goes on to describe its core partnership with various international organizations, including the WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the BMGF.

As previously reported by The Defender, GAVI, through its INFUSE initiative, has called for “innovations that leverage new technologies to modernize the process of identifying and registering the children who are most in need of life-saving vaccines.”

GAVI also closely collaborates with the ID2020 Alliance, founded in 2016, which claims to advocate in favor of “ethical, privacy-protecting approaches to digital ID,” adding that “doing digital ID right means protecting civil liberties.

Microsoft is a founding member of the ID2020 alliance (in 2018) and appears to partner with it, while Kim Gagné, ID2020’s board chairman, is a former Microsoft executive.

Controversy has surrounded GAVI’s activity in India. GAVI, along with the PHFI and the BMGF, have promoted the Pentavalent vaccine, which combines five vaccines – diphtheria, hepatitis B, tetanus, whooping cough, and haemophilus influenza type B (which causes pneumonia and meningitis) – into one.

The Indian Health Ministry found the deaths of three infants in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to have had “a consistent causal association to immunization” — that is, to the Pentavalent vaccine, while in total, 54 infant deaths were classified with the AEFI as adverse reaction deaths.

GAVI provided a $165 million grant in August 2009 for the phased introduction of Pentavalent in India, in addition to subsidizing each injection for five years thereafter.

Regulatory capture and a “revolving door” between the Indian government and GAVI also appears to exist, as in the example of Anuradha Gupta, formerly an official with the Indian Health Ministry and director of the National Health Mission. Gupta in 2014 was named deputy CEO of GAVI, and remains in the position to this day.

Gates involved in controversial digital ID schemes in India

In 2009, the Indian government launched a national digital identification card system known as Aadhaar, now the world’s largest biometric identification system.

The Aadhaar Card contains biometric and demographic data and provides individuals with a unique 12-digit identity number, though it is in and of itself not considered proof of Indian citizenship, just of Indian residence.

The Aadhaar identification number was linked with numerous public and private services, including the opening of bank accounts, verification of electoral identity, filing income tax returns, making digital payments, receiving government pensions, subsidies and welfare payments and registration of mobile SIM cards.

Aadhaar has generated controversy in India, such as over the government’s plans to link it to the national voter database.

And in 2017, it was reported that HIV patients in India were being coerced into submitting their Aadhaar number, leading them to drop out of treatment programs due to privacy concerns.

Chinese hackers also reportedly targeted the Aadhaar database.

Aadhaar also was at the center of legal controversy. A 2013 ruling by the Indian Supreme Court found no person should be denied government services, benefits or subsidies for not possessing the Aadhaar card.

A subsequent Supreme Court ruling in 2018 upheld the constitutionality of the Aadhaar system, but found it cannot be made mandatory for use by private organizations, such as banks or mobile providers.

Civil society groups in India, such as the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties, expressed opposition to Aadhaar on the basis of privacy concerns. The National Advisory Council and the Central Employment Guarantee Council of India opposed Aadhaar “on the grounds of civil liberties.”

Nevertheless, Gates, on his personal blog, praised Aadhaar — describing it as “a valuable platform for delivering social welfare programs and other government services” — and Nandan Nilekani, who developed the Aadhaar system and who now works with the World Bank Group to help other countries develop similar schemes.

Gates also dismissed privacy concerns surrounding Aadhaar, stating that “Aadhaar in itself doesn’t pose any privacy issue because it’s just a bio ID verification scheme,” adding that “We [the BMGF] have funded the World Bank to take this Aadhaar approach to other countries.”

In 2020, the Indian government announced the launch of the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission, a system that would complement Aadhaar by providing a unique digital health ID to all citizens and that would be linked to their personal health records.

The program was initially trialed in six Indian regions and was launched nationally on Sept. 27, 2021. As of Nov. 2021, 96% of Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission users were linked with Aadhaar.

The launch earned Gates’ praise. He tweeted congratulations to Indian President Modi, stating the program “will help ensure equitable, accessible healthcare delivery and accelerate progress on India’s health goals.”

Notably, in October 2021, the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission received a $350,690 grant from the BMGF to support its “rollout and strengthening,” raising concerns have been raised regarding privacy, informed consent and data leakage.

Freedom of information requests revealed that Indian authorities generated health IDs for individuals who provided their Aadhaar number when receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, enrolling them in the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission without informed consent.