From Isolating Strains To Mass-Producing Vaccines: Maharashtra At The Forefront Of India's Fight Against Covid

From Isolating Strains To Mass-Producing Vaccines: Maharashtra At The Forefront Of India's Fight Against Covid

by Aashish Chandorkar - Monday, May 1, 2023 10:24 AM IST
From Isolating Strains To Mass-Producing Vaccines: Maharashtra At The Forefront Of India's Fight Against Covid Maharashtra Day
  • On Maharashtra Day, India’s industrial, intellectual and financial powerhouse state can look back and take pride in the fact that it was at the forefront of leading the country on the path of normalcy during a once-in-a-generation crisis.

The Maharashtra Day in 2021 was a very different time from what we experience this year.

India was in the grip of a devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the daily diagnosed cases went up to more than 400,000 per day.

India was able to mount a strong and effective healthcare response to the pandemic subsequently and get back its economy on track. Maharashtra and specifically the city of Pune had a major role to play in this turnaround story.

On the occasion of Maharashtra Day, it is instructive to recall the role the state has played in the development of India’s vaccine development capacity.

Maharashtra’s vaccine story goes as far back as one of the earlier deadly epidemic India faced on account of cholera in 1890s.

Dr Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, a Russian scientist born in Odessa and a student of the legendary microbiologist Louis Pasteur at the Pasteur Institute, Paris is the key name behind the modern-day vaccine capabilities of the state.

Haffkine designed a vaccine for cholera in 1892, performing the first human trial of the vaccine on himself. But since his act of great personal risk did not convince specialists including Pasteur of the vaccine effectiveness, he moved to India in 1893 to conduct trials in a cholera-impacted live environment.

Haffkine set up a laboratory in Byculla in what is now South Mumbai in 1896. This laboratory was the genesis of the Haffkine Institute, located now in Parel since 1899.

It is one of India’s eminent vaccine research institute even today and a key scientific organisation for the government of Maharashtra.

In the times Haffkine operated in India, the country faced tremendous public health burden. India lost around 40 million people to the epidemics of cholera, plague and influenza between 1817 and 1920 — it was the most affected country during the time of the outbreak of each of these diseases.

Haffkine also worked on a vaccine for plague and eventually more than 40-lakh Indians got inoculated with it. However, due to the deaths of 19 individuals in the Punjab village of Mulkowal, Haffkine lost his role as the director of the Haffkine Institute.

An initial enquiry led to his dismissal, but later on, he was acquitted, with the second enquiry finding improper and unsterilised local use of vaccine bottles. Haffkine then moved to the Biological Laboratory in Kolkata, where he stayed till 1915 when he left India.

This 22-year chance stint of Dr Waldemar Haffkine in India was instrumental in Maharashtra acquiring scientific knowledge and capability, which held India in good stead during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Post-independence, the virology focus shifted to Pune, with the establishment of the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune in 1952. This institution was set up in 1952, when the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation for this initiative.

Originally called the Virus Research Centre, the institute was designated as a collaborating laboratory of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1967.

The Rockefeller Foundation withdrew its support the same year and since then, the institute has been functioning as the crown jewel of the ICMR in the field of virological studies.

The NIV started functioning as the regional centre of the WHO for Southeast Asia for arbovirus studies from 1969.

The institute got its present name in 1978, after being designated as an institution of national eminence.

The NIV was, of course, not new to coronaviruses, as it had also been at the forefront of India’s fight against the swine flu epidemic a decade ago.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the NIV was the only laboratory in the country where the swab samples from suspected patients could be tested.

However, the NIV isolated the SARS-CoV-2 strain in March 2020, after which the testing could be scaled nationally. This was a critical step for a faster response to the pandemic.

The Serum Institute, set up in 1966, became a key player in the Indian response to the pandemic.

The research and manufacturing firm, set up by Cyrus Poonawalla and now run by son his Adar, was the biggest vaccine manufacturer in the world when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. It had a total annual capacity of 1.5-billion vaccine doses.

The firm started off with making antitoxins and antivenoms but over time had diversified in making vaccines like DPT and MMR. Serum Institute also became a key supplier of vaccine globally to programmes run by the UNICEF as well as the WHO.

Unsurprisingly, the firm which emerged as a large vaccine manufacturing platform, was amongst the earliest to sign a deal with AstraZeneca to mass-produce its Covid-19 vaccine being researched by the Oxford University.

Another important development on the vaccine front took place in Pune in 2013. Vaccine cold chains ensure higher safety, greater availability and retain the potency of the vaccines.

Towards this end, the National Cold Chain and Vaccine Management Resource Centre in New Delhi and the National Cold Chain Resource Centre in Pune were established in 2013 by the central government in partnership with UNICEF and government of Maharashtra.

With the launch of Mission Indradhanush under the Narendra Modi government, these centres got involved in creating this district- and centre-level health infrastructure, which involved physical infrastructure as well as human capital training and capacity building.

The last mile vaccine logistics is a key piece of the public immunisation jigsaw puzzle. Another Pune-based firm Kool-ex played a seminal role in this area during the pandemic.

Run by entrepreneur Kunal Agarwal along with his brother, Kool-ex had been operating in the pharmaceutical industry for more than a decade. The company had worked with India’s vaccine makers in other scenarios, so they found it easy to adapt their infrastructure to Covid-19 vaccines.

When the private hospitals entered India’s vaccination programme, the work for companies like Kool-ex exploded. They were required to ship vaccines directly to the participating hospitals located in various parts of the country.

At the peak of the vaccine movement, Kool-ex was covering about 20 lakh km or 2 million km of distance every month. This was akin to doing a round trip from the Earth to the moon three times in a month.

Following the battle against the pandemic, the government has taken up the concept of One Health expeditiously.

A common consensus is emerging globally that zoonotic diseases may lead to future global health events. These diseases transmit across species from animals to humans or from humans to animals. It is no surprise that Maharashtra leads the race on this front as well.

The foundation stone for the National Institute of One Health (NIOH) was laid by Prime Minister Modi in December 2022. The NIOH will come up at Nagpur, where a similar government of Maharashtra facility exists, and will also house a BSL-4 laboratory.

The vision for this institute is to work on the idea of ‘One Health’ involving cross-functional experts, including veterinarians, ecologists, wildlife experts, epidemiologists and public health experts.

The centre also expects to collaborate with other research organisations, similar bodies in other countries and with the WHO.

On Maharashtra Day, India’s industrial, intellectual and financial powerhouse state can look back and take pride in the fact that it was at the forefront of leading the country on the path of normalcy during a once-in-a-generation crisis.

It is also these stories of fortitude, ingenuity and risk-taking, which can inspire the next generation of Maharashtra’s academics, entrepreneurs and scientists.

The state with a large share in India’s industrial output, exports, foreign direct investment and gross domestic product needs to keep reinventing itself towards more such national and international leadership.

(Parts of this article have been sourced from the book Braving A Viral Storm: India’s Covid-19 Vaccine Story (Rupa Publications, January 2023), co-written by the author.)

Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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