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COVID-19 vaccine development at early stage in India; breakthrough unlikely within a year: Experts

The Indian government and private firms have stepped up efforts to develop a vaccine to halt the spread of COVID-19 which has claimed over 3,700 lives with more than 1,25,000 cases in the country.

May 23, 2020 / 05:28 PM IST

As Indian firms scramble to develop a vaccine for coronavirus, experts feel that research in the country is still at a nascent stage and any concrete breakthrough is not likely within a year.

The Indian government and private firms have stepped up efforts to develop a vaccine to halt the spread of COVID-19 which has claimed over 3,700 lives with more than 1,25,000 cases in the country.

PM-CARES Fund Trust has decided to allocate Rs 100 crore for support to coronavirus vaccine development efforts.

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Referring to a vaccine to fight the virus, a PMO statement had said that it is the most pressing need and Indian academia, start-ups and industry have come together in cutting-edge vaccine design and development.


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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The Department of Biotechnology has been made a central coordination agency to identify pathways for vaccine development.

Naming the Indian firms working on vaccines for COVID-19, Gagandeep Kang, executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, had said last month that while Zydus Cadila is working on two vaccines, Serum Institute, Biological E, Bharat Biotech, Indian Immunologicals, and Mynvax are developing one vaccine each.

The WHO has listed Serum Institute of India, Zydus Cadila, Indian Immunologicals Limited and Bharat Biotech from India among the firms involved in developing a vaccine.

Leading virologist Shahid Jameel said India's vaccine manufacturing capacity is quite remarkable and at least three Indian companies - Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech and Biologicals E are at the forefont, working with international partners to manufacture a vaccine for COVID-19.

"Research on a COVID vaccine in India is at a very early stage of development and any candidates are likely to reach animal trials only by the end of the year," he told PTI.

However, Indian vaccine companies have a lot of capacity and expertise, and are likely to play a significant role in bringing new COVID-19 vaccines to the market.

This experience is important for institutions, industry and regulators to work together, and prepare for the future, said Jameel, a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize winner for Science and Technology and the current Chief Executive Officer of Wellcome Trust/Department of Biotechnology's India Alliance.

CSIR-Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) Director Rakesh Mishra said, "From what we know, we are not at an advanced stage of vaccine development at the moment."

"There are lots of ideas and companies initiating vaccine development process but there is nothing on trial in terms of vaccine candidates," he told PTI.

There are many efforts going on with different approaches like somebody wants to use the whole virus or a particular protein so there are multiple processes being deployed, he said.

"Many Indian companies are collaborating with foreign institutions.Other countries are at much advanced stage than us. Some are going into third stage trials. There is no company testing vaccine in India yet and they are in the pre-clinical stage of preparation," he said.

India is quite behind because of a number of reasons like the coronavirus came to India two-three months later so "we did not have the (inactivated) virus to test or even the urgency", Mishra said, adding that the Chinese and US are quite ahead in the vaccine development.

"If a comparison has to be made we are well behind international efforts," he said.

The novel coronavirus strain was isolated and characterised at the Indian Council of Medical Research's National Institute of Virology, Pune, and the vaccine candidate has been transferred to Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) to develop a fully indigenous vaccine for COVID-19.

"Once the vaccine is ready it will go for animal trials to be followed by human clinical trials to assess its safety and efficacy which will take at least one year," a senior ICMR official told PTI.

The BBIL is working towards developing killed virus vaccine which usually provides good immunogenicity, the official said, adding that by entering the body it will create antibody against the infection.

The polio drops which are given to children have live attenuated virus, while the polio injection contains killed virus, the official said explaining the different approaches used in developing a vaccine.

"The BBIL is continuously working in this direction and as soon as they get the right formulation they will move towards animal challenge studies followed by human clinical trials," the official said.

Kang, in a webinar held by India Alliance, said there are two separate aspects that relates to vaccines of COVID-19, one is to use existing products and the second is to see if new vaccines can be made.

"In terms of projects to develop vaccines there are around 90 plus projects around the world that have initiated to develop new vaccines which use different kinds of technologies. Some are using old technologies like make an inactivated virus and spike protein and other using new technologies that allow you to respond rapidly like using messenger RNA vaccines," Kang said.

Every new technology is being applied for making COVID-19 vacines, he said.

The Indian firms along with their foreign collaborators are racing against time to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 with over 52 lakh cases and over 3.35 lakh fatalities across the globe.

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.
first published: May 23, 2020 05:00 pm

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