Published:  03:43 AM, 23 May 2020

Indian company could be world's door to vaccine

Indian company could be world's door to vaccine A research scientist works inside a laboratory of India's Serum Institute, the world's largest maker of vaccines, which is working on vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pune, India, May 18, 2020. -Reuters


If the world is to gain access to a vaccine for COVID-19, there's a good chance it will pass through the doors of Serum Institute of India.

Serum Institute, the world's largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume, is working on several candidates for the novel coronavirus - including potentially mass-producing the AstraZeneca/ Oxford university one that has garnered global headlines - as well as developing its own. The efforts are partly being shepherded by Umesh Shaligram, the head of research and development. His employer is a private company but every day, shortly before midnight, he receives a WhatsApp message from the government asking for updates, and about any new hurdles he faces.

The message is usually from K Vijay Raghavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's top scientific adviser - an indication of the critical, and even strategically important, nature of the race to develop the vaccines the whole world is waiting for.

Shaligram promptly responds with a progress report and details any bottlenecks.

"Any delays, you just tell them," said Shaligram, adding the government has been doing everything it can to fast-track clearances, and resolve import delays and other issues.

"We have begun to see approvals come through in days, even on a Sunday night, for trials and things like that," he said, noting some of these processes typically took 4 to 6 months.

While most of the attention regarding vaccines typically goes to the pharmaceutical developer, India quietly plays a key role in manufacturing 60%-70% of all vaccines sold globally with the Serum Institute playing a lead role, said the company's Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla.

At the company's sprawling, 150-acre campus in the western Indian city of Pune, Shaligram and his team are working flat-out. Dozens of buses ferry in hundreds of workers each day to the grounds, which are buzzing with activity even as the city around it remains largely under lockdown.

The push comes as the number of cases of COVID-19, both globally and domestically, continue to surge and world leaders look to vaccines as the only real way to restart their stalled economies, even though none have yet been proven to be effective against the coronavirus.

Poonawalla, whose family owns he vaccine maker, said scientists, drugmakers and manufacturers were collaborating at an unparalleled scale to spur development and availability.

"We are all in a race to battle the disease, there is no one-upmanship here," he told Reuters, sitting in his office beside his family's 74-year-old stud farm.

VACCINE CANDIDATES

Serum, founded in 1966 by Adar's father Cyrus Poonawalla, has partnered with US biotech firm Codagenix, its US rival Novavax and Austria's Themis to potentially manufacture three COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are still in development.

Another candidate in the works is the experimental vaccine developed by a team at the University of Oxford and now licensed to drugmaker AstraZeneca, with whom Serum are in talks to mass produce the vaccine, which is now in the clinical trial stage.

The United States has secured almost a third of the first 1 billion doses planned for the potential vaccine, initially known as ChAdOx1 and now as AZD1222, by pledging up to $1.2 billion.

Poonawalla aims to initially produce 4-5 million doses a month, beginning from June, and then gradually ramp up to 350-400 million doses a year.

"Hopefully we will build a stock of a few million doses to give to our country and other high-risk areas across the globe come October-November when the trials ought to be concluded," the 39-year-old said, while giving Reuters rare access to tour his facilities.

He added he had been given to understand by the development team that the trials had an 80% chance of success, given that the vaccine is based on a tried-and-tested platform.

Based on the information currently available, Poonawalla also said he anticipated AZD1222 would be a single-dose vaccine and not require a booster dose.

He sees AZD1222 potentially priced at about 1,000 rupees ($13) per dose in India, but expects it will be procured and distributed by governments without charge.

Serum is also working on developing its own in-house vaccine options to tackle the disease, Poonawalla said.



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