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Indian vaccine makers bank on boosters as demand crashes

Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers are lobbying the government to authorise boosters as supplies have so outstripped demand that one drugmaker told Reuters it had suspended a plan to produce more than 100 million doses of Russia's Sputnik shot.

December 08, 2021 / 04:12 PM IST
(Representational Image.)

(Representational Image.)

Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers are lobbying the government to authorise boosters as supplies have so outstripped demand that one drugmaker told Reuters it had suspended a plan to produce more than 100 million doses of Russia's Sputnik shot.

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's biggest vaccine maker, and Sputnik's India distributor, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, have both said they have approached health authorities about boosters.

India has said its priority is to fully vaccinate all 944 million adults, though its immunisation experts are studying the need for boosters. India has given two doses to more than half of its adults and at least one dose to 86% of them.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1.3 billion total doses administered in India have been the Covishield vaccine, a licensed version of the AstraZeneca shot produced by SII.

The government wants a total of 1.7 billion vaccine doses to fully immunise most of its adults, and the SII plans to make the last of its pending orders to meet its share of that demand by next week.


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 SII has said it plans to halve its monthly output of Covishield, which has been 250 million doses, due to a lack of demand.

It is one of seven Indian companies that Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF has struck deals with to make a total of nearly 1 billion Sputnik doses, both for export and for use in India.

But only 1.2 million doses of Sputnik V have been administered in India, government data shows. Some 4 million doses, bottled in India using imported material from Russia, exported, said two sources.

"We are talking to the regulator to allow it as a booster dose," G.V. Prasad, managing director of Dr Reddy’s, told Reuters in a recent interview about the single-dose Sputnik Light.

"Right now, there's no demand, the market is fully supplied by the Serum Institute. Internationally also, supply is not a constraint anymore."

An Indian pharmaceutical company that was supposed to produce more than 100 million Sputnik doses has put the plan on hold without making a single commercial dose, said a source with direct knowledge of the decision.

The source, who declined to be identified in the interests of maintaining business relations, said the company had moved on to non-COVID products but would switch back to Sputnik if demand returned.

RDIF declined to make any immediate comment.

It said in a statement on Monday that it was "actively cooperating" with Indian authorities to get Sputnik Light approved as a standalone vaccine and booster.

The other vaccines either in trial or waiting approval in India are: Bio E's protein sub-unit vaccine, Bharat Biotech's nasal vaccine and Gennova's mRNA vaccine.

The Indian government said in May it expected 460 million doses of the three shots between August and December, but no commercial production has begun.

Gennova says it expects demand to come from boosters, overseas markets and children when its shot hits the market after trials.

Bio E, Bharat Biotech, Cadila and India's health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Vaccination for those under the age of 18 in India has not started yet, a market most of the companies are targeting next.

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