It is a remarkable achievement, well recognized not just within the country but globally as well. It gives us a level of confidence that we can take on any major public health healthcare challenge. We are inoculating around a crore every day, which is not an easy task, considering the vastness and varied demographics of the country. I would like to congratulate the entire supply chain, the logistics, the human resource personnel who have made it possible. Vaccination is one of the key measures of controlling the pandemic, but equally important is to follow COVID-appropriate behaviour. And I think every citizen has to ensure that we don’t create an environment where the virus can spread, again.
India has always been known as the largest producer of vaccines. What did it take for it to become a developer of the vaccine? This has been a very remarkable journey where we saw all researchers coming together from academia, the industry, and start-ups. We shared knowledge, ideas, infrastructure, breaking the boundaries between academia and the industry. And the result is there for all to see. We indigenously developed Covaxin which, along with Covishield, has driven our vaccination programme. We have already got Emergency Use Authorization for the world’s first DNA vaccine, and soon we are going to have a vaccine from Biological E. Besides, an mRNA vaccine is in phase 2 clinical trials. We are confident that with the infrastructure and scientific acumen we have, we can develop many other vaccines, beyond COVID-19. Since Covid-19 vaccines have been developed in such a short time and are being given Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). How were you assured of their safety and efficacy? We haven’t really cut short the trial and have a good amount of safety data from phase-2 and phase-3 trials of these vaccines. Various studies are going on post-vaccination to keep track of the vaccine efficacy against various variants. We have also got data to show the types of breakthrough infections, re-infection cases, etc, which gives us the confidence that vaccines are both effective and safe. Various institutes across the country, including DBT’s Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (TSHTI), have undertaken long-term studies to study various aspects of the vaccines.
What were the challenges that the country faced during the development phases of the vaccines and how did it overcome them?
Vaccine development is a complex process. The challenges which we faced were on the scientific and technical front, which every scientific researcher would face. We were looking at developing five to six vaccines simultaneously. So, initially, our challenge was to have adequate research facilities to meet the demand. In fact, India was one of the first countries which got its roadmap to fight the disease ready along with other developed nations such as the US, the UK in the WHO meeting in February 2020. We identified vaccines as our biggest strengths. The government supported this high-risk innovation funding for new vaccine development platforms and that’s how the industry got the confidence to work on mRNA and DNA vaccines. Simultaneously, we identified the gaps: We needed more animal facilities, immune assay laboratories, clinical trials facilities, and we quickly ramped them up. Today, we have 54 clinical trial sites and 4 animal test facilities and our researchers don’t have to depend upon resources from overseas. We have all the required resources within the country. So, this has been a strategically planned effort.
How will this massive investment in research help the country? The government has for the first time invested in a mission focused on a product so quickly. The Mission COVID Suraksha which was launched under the Atmanirbhar Bharat was a Rs 900-crore mission that helped us developed a number of vaccines in such as short time. In fact, I also strongly believe that we could achieve it because we have been investing in the basic science ecosystem for some years now. And this capacity that we have built will encourage us to develop many more vaccines such as vaccines for tuberculosis, dengue, chikungunya, malaria, and many more. And most importantly, a pan-Corona vaccine that could provide protection against all variants of Covid-19.
(The author is Secretary, Department of Bio-Technology, Government of India. Press Information Bureau Srinagar has mailed this article to “Kashmir Horizon” for publication in this newspaper. Views are his own)