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Exclusive | France said to be looking to secure Bharat Biotech COVID-19 vaccine

With less than 5 percent of its population inoculated so far, the Emmanuel Macron government is under tremendous pressure to secure more vaccines. Covaxin could likely be a beneficiary.

March 03, 2021 / 02:28 PM IST
 France, along with Italy, Germany and Spain, has recorded the most coronavirus deaths in the EU. (Image: Wikimedia)

France, along with Italy, Germany and Spain, has recorded the most coronavirus deaths in the EU. (Image: Wikimedia)

France could become the second country after Brazil to purchase doses of Covaxin, the COVID-19 vaccine made by India’s Bharat Biotech, as the country grapples with a daunting vaccination challenge and rising number of infections.

French ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain met Bharat Biotech CEO Krishna Ella on March 1 at the latter's office in Hyderabad to discuss procuring a large batch of the company's vaccine in the near future, a person privy to the details of the meeting said.

Authorities of European Union (EU), which France is part of, have not approved Covaxin, whose Phase III clinical trial results will be revealed only later this month. But the vaccine can still join a list of other candidates ordered in advance by European nations with a pending approval status, the person added, asking not to be named.

The meeting between Lenain and Ella took place two hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a shot of Covaxin and encouraged citizens to participate in the vaccination drive. Both Bharat Biotech and the French Embassy in India were unavailable for comments at the time of this story being published.

France, along with Italy, Germany and Spain, has recorded the most coronavirus deaths in the EU, the Associated Press reported. France, India’s staunchest ally among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council,  also faces rising infection rates; the government ordered a lockdown of the Dunkirk area and hinted that it plans to introduce new restrictions elsewhere.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Currently, three COVID-19 vaccines— by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca— are available in France. But the country has been struggling to convince its citizens to take jabs from pharma giant AstraZeneca as doubts over that vaccine’s efficacy mount.

A delay by Moderna in delivering its vaccine has slowed down the vaccination calendar announced by many governments across the 27-nation bloc, sparking criticism against the EU's vaccine strategy.

On February 25, Brazil signed a contract with Bharat Biotech to purchase 20 million doses of Covaxin.

The Emmanuel Macron-led French government has expectedly faced a barrage of criticism for delays in the public vaccination programme. Only 4.5 per cent of the French population have received inoculation as of February-end.

For these reasons, France may now be warming up to the idea of securing Bharat Biotech's Covaxin, according to a senior diplomat: "Apart from the obvious incentive of securing a much cheaper alternative to the European vaccines, for a number of other reasons as well," he said, requesting anonymity.

Covaxin deliveries to Brazil are expected to begin during the second and third quarters of the next financial year. Bharat Biotech has said there is a strong interest in Covaxin from many countries around the world.

The company said it will be coming up with Phase-3 efficacy data by the second week of March.  It is ramping capacities to 40 million doses, with its third facility entering production.

Subhayan Chakraborty
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