Indian pharmaceutical companies have been thrust into the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, riding on the country’s established reputation of making affordable drugs for the poor.
While the rush has seen the US, UK, Russia and even China compete to be the first to deliver the elusive vaccine to the world, some 30 Indian firms say they are separately at different stages of research to develop an affordable vaccine for the world.
The World Health Organisation has already greenlighted seven vaccine candidates. They include ZyCoV-D by Zydus Cadila, a pharma giant based in Ahmedabad City.
Last week, it announced it was launching the first phase of trials.
“We are testing two versions of our vaccine, one which makes use of molecular DNA to elicit an immune response, and another which uses a live measles viral strain to provide protection,” Pankaj Patel, CEO of Zydus, said.
Indian Immunological Limited, another vaccine maker that is partnering with Griffith University, Australia, is also in the race.
Its vaccine model is still in its nascent stage and makes use of an innovative codon-deoptimisation technology which directly targets the cells infected by SARS-COV-2.
It is unclear how long their version will take to begin trials, but their thrust into the race could create a competitive edge for India.
Mynvax; a Bengaluru based pharmaceutical start-up, recently made headlines when it revealed that it is working on a vaccine which uses a unique approach that will result in a protein-based vaccine.
That process too may have its own period of study, but it still adds to India’s collage of scientists trying to find a solution.
One of the most popular vaccine candidates in India is that of collaboration between the Serum Institute of India and British-Swedish pharmaceutical AstraZeneca.
The firm is currently involved in the development of the much-talked about adenovirus vector vaccine with the University of Oxford.
The vaccine prototype now named ‘Covidshield’ is currently in phase III of testing in Austria with the final product expected to be ready by December 2020.
Initial trials have already found it safe and effective, according to Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla.
“We want to make 300 to 400 million doses by December, and over one billion doses of the jab in the next one year, for India and other low – and middle income countries,” Poonawalla told the media recently.
The Serum Institute has also applied for a licence from Drug Controller General of India to begin clinical trials for Covidshield within a week.
AstraZeneca works by inducing immune responses to spike. The spike protein basically decorates the surface of the coronavirus and the virus uses it in order to enter into the cells in our body to cause infection.
“We are trying to make neutralising antibodies, which bind onto the spike proteins and stop the virus from being able to enter our cells and cause infection,” an official of the company said.
In scientific parlance, an antibody is a protective protein produced by the immune system as a response to the presence of a foreign substance, called an antigen. This foreign substance may be a virus like that which causes Covid-19.
Panacea Biotec Limited, a biotech firm based in New Delhi, has been working in partnership with a US-based pharma, Refana Inc, to develop another defence against Covid.
With WHO clearance to develop, manufacture and distribute an experimental vaccine, officials said the vaccine prototype will make use of an inactivated virus strain.
Already, it has shown effective results in the preclinical trials in the US.
Another Indian firm, Biological E, based in Hyderabad announced last week it was still at pre-clinical level and was working on a preventive drug.
From the outset, India’s race looks much like those elsewhere but the question for poor people like those in Kenya and Africa concerns the cost of the vaccine.
Mr Poonawalla said it is too early to give a figure, especially since trials tend to disappoint but he thinks they will keep it under 1000 Rupees (Sh1,450).
“Our aim is to deliver an efficacious and affordable vaccine,” he said, adding that he believes priority should be given to vulnerable groups such as healthcare workers, frontline staff, the elderly and others with underlying health conditions who have weak immune systems, and children when it comes to distribution.
“It will be a government-administered vaccine programme and I feel healthy young adults can get it later.”
India could bank on its reputation as a supplier of drugs to countries such as Kenya, which has also seen it improve on its trade with Africa in the past decade.
A joint study by the African Export-Import (EXIM) Bank and Export-Import Bank of India recently indicated that trade between Africa and India has expanded more than eight fold, from $7.2 billion in 2001 to $62 billion worth of exports to Africa in 2018.
Of the goods sold to Africa, refined petroleum and pharmaceutical products accounted for 40 per cent of India’s exports to the continent.
As of June 2019, India’s medical tourism was said to earn the Asian subcontinent $9 billion, nearly a third of Kenya’s annual budgetary estimates.
Dr Moses Masika, a virologist at the University of Nairobi believes India’s track record in affordable pharmaceutical business can stand it in a good stead.
“Historically, India’s entry into the manufacture of HIV drugs [ARVs] enabled access to such critical drugs by countries in Africa that could not previously afford them,” he said, referring to the generic drugs produced by India. The original drugs produced by the West were too expensive for the poor in Africa but under special exemptions in intellectual property rights, Indian firms were allowed to make generics specially targeting the poor.
Dr Masika added that each of those trials for the vaccine could still be subject to any new information that may come forth about the virus.
“We really need to know whether people who have recovered develop immunity against the virus and how long this immunity lasts,” he said.
Scientists will need to study the virus in phases, find out what kind of vaccine can work, develop the vaccine, test it on animals, then move to trials in humans.
None of those stages have any predetermined periods or outcomeS, meaning some studies may take longer than others.
Professor Matilu Mwau of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) declined to disclose what exactly the scientists are working on for Covid-19 but said virus controls will be largely dependent on human behaviour.
“In Kenya, we are still validating antigen tests and unlike India, we haven’t found any, so we cannot mass-test.”
He, however, admitted that whoever will deliver the vaccine first to the African market will have their influence dramatically increased.
“India is capable of producing huge doses and therefore we will definitely not be sidelined.”
Mr Aly Khan Satchu, a lawyer and geopolitics analyst, argues that India would be a “win-win” for Africa because it would be very keen to partner with the continent if the opportunity arose.
“A Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough would present India with a significant geopolitical opening particularly vis-à-vis China which has established a chokehold over India.”
If Russia delivers, he added, it will also benefit from better relations with Africa.
“Russia has been making a return to Africa and the summit in Sochi last year was a part of that. Winning the vaccine race for her would not only be a geopolitical accelerator but also a silver bullet.”
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