Bharat Biotech chairman and managing director Dr Krishna Ella shared the journey of India's indigenously developed Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin at the Times Now Summit 2021, where he was invited to share his view on ‘Jaan Bhi, Jahan Bhi'.
Ella incorporated Bharat Biotech in 1996 after working as a research faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston. A gold medallist at university, he earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the field of molecular biology.
About a week ago, Covaxin was granted World Health Organization's (WHO) approval for emergency use listing (EUL). The WHO clearance is a significant step in Covaxin being accepted by foreign governments. EUL is also a prerequisite for a vaccine to be supplied through the COVAX facility.
The approval will remove uncertainty around overseas travel by Indians inoculated with this vaccine. Covaxin became the sixth COVID-19 vaccine in the world to be granted EUL after those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, US pharma majors Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, China’s Sinopharm and Oxford-AstraZeneca.
Ella said that the 'vaccine revolution' is bound to happen in India. Speaking about the journey towards approval, he criticised the negative role played by the media during the process. He gave an example of the case where media persons wrote to journals, falsely blaming a death by suicide on the vaccine. He said that such events caused a delay as they, then, decided to investigate. "But we are transparent, and truthful, and we won the game," he said.
He said that there were political motivations behind the criticism of the vaccine: "When the Prime Minister took the vaccine, they said it is a Modi vaccine, it is a BJP vaccine. We are scientists. We don't understand the politics. We only know how to do science and succeed in the field. That is all we know. But how people projected us, it not only hurt us, but also the future of the startups in the country."
"We are neutral. We want India to succeed. We want the people to benefit. That is all we aim for. So that kind of negative thinking really hurt us," he said.
He further said that the politically-driven negative agenda from within the country also put the WHO in an "awkward position" and they wanted to be doubly sure. We are probably the only vaccine who had to go through so much scrutiny, and it was in part due to what was going on internally in the country, he said, adding, "but it was all good at the end."
He also said that, apart from Covaxin, Bharat Biotech has produced many great vaccines that are being used around the world. He referred to Typbar TCV which is the world’s first clinically proven conjugate Typhoid vaccine, and the only approved vaccine for children and infants less than 2 years of age. "We did it, first one in the world, not European or American pharma giants. We have done great work before, just that it didn't get this much attention from the media," he said.
On the issue of getting the approval for the vaccine for children, Ella said that the relevant data had been submitted to the national regulatory authority, and only after their approval, Bharat Biotech can move on to international level of WHO, etc. "We can see that China is moving aggressively in Latin American countries, Argentina, etc. The Indian government should recognise that we are competing globally," he said.
Regarding supply capacity, Ella informed that they had reached 1 billion annual capacity already and had partnered with other firms - three in the public sector, and one in the private sector.
He said that the company will soon come out with the nasal vaccine and that the first dose can be Covaxin and the second dose can be nasal. "The nasal dose has strategic advantage, as it will stop the transmission due to nasal droplets," he said.
The intranasal immunisation can create an immune response in the nose, which is the point of entry for the virus—thereby protecting against disease, infection, and transmission. "The only thing with nasal booster dose is that the body should have been primed, either with infection or vaccination," Ella said.
He also informed that he was in talks with the government to use the COWIN platform not just for immunisation but also for fast-tracking clinical trials.
The company was also about to launch a vaccine for the Zika virus, Dr Ella said that Bharat Biotech was the first one in the world to bring out the Zika vaccine in 2014, before the Brazil outbreak, and the first one to file a global patent. "But then, there was nobody to fund the project, so we kept it on the backburner," he added.
India has seen many Zika cases recently. As of 11 November 2021, the number of Zika virus cases in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, has breached the 100 mark since the infection was first detected on 23 October.
'We are already ready with the vaccine for Zika virus. Phase I is complete. Government has to take up more trials because there are more cases now," said Ella.
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