Maharashtra And Its History Of Producing Critical Vaccines

by Aashish Chandorkar - May 1, 2022 11:09 AM +05:30 IST
Maharashtra And Its History Of Producing Critical VaccinesInoculation against Plague in Bombay (now Mumbai) (Twitter)
Snapshot
  • Covishield production in Pune is not Maharashtra's first contribution to critical vaccination projects.

    The vaccine against the bubonic plague was developed in a laboratory in Parel.

Maharashtra has long been the economic engine of India, home to some of the largest Indian businesses and the first city of the financial services and media industries. However, one of the most significant contributions from the state has been in developing and manufacturing vaccines.

In the ongoing battle with the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of Pune-based Serum Institute of India has been a stellar one. India has administered 189 crore vaccine doses as of end-April 2022. Of these, more than 153 crore vaccine doses have been Covishield.

The Serum Institute of India, already a global leader in vaccines, with its products reaching 65 per cent of all children globally, was an early mover in the race to Covid-19 vaccines. It had approached AstraZeneca for a potential contract of manufacturing as early as April 2020, when vaccine candidates were still being worked out in the initial stages.

The partnership between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India was announced on 4 June 2020.

The Pune-based firm invested in creating inventories of the vaccine, branded Covishield, for eventual use in India. It continued to make the vaccine, risking the possibility that the AstraZeneca-Oxford University product may not meet the effectiveness and efficacy standards required for regulatory approvals.

The business risk assumed by the chief executive officer of the Serum Institute of India, Adar Poonawalla, eventually paid off for him and for the country. The picture of Poonawalla sitting at the back of the first truck loaded with vaccines went viral in January 2021.

His father, and the managing director of the Serum Institute of India, Cyrus Poonawalla, was awarded the Padma Bhushan on Republic Day 2022, recognising the contributions made by the firm in ring-fencing India against the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, the Serum Institute of India is the undisputed modern-era global contract vaccine manufacturing leader. But this is not the only success story of vaccine making from Maharashtra.

In fact, the first-of-its-kind global vaccination success emerged in Maharashtra about 125 years ago, thanks to a gentleman named Waldemar Haffkine.

Originally from Odessa, now Ukraine, Waldemar Haffkine was instrumental in saving thousands of Indian lives at the turn of the previous century. His contribution in saving Indian lives out of his laboratory in Mumbai came against the deadly plague outbreak that started in China in 1894 and travelled to Mumbai in 1896 through Hong Kong.

Waldemar Haffkine
Waldemar Haffkine

Haffkine had developed a cholera vaccine in 1892 and tested it on himself. He wanted to conduct human trials in areas that saw regular cholera outbreaks. He was then based in Paris, working at the Pasteur Institute.

Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the then British ambassador to Paris and the Viceroy and Governor General of India between 1884 and 1888, suggested that Haffkine should try his vaccines in then Calcutta.

Haffkine came to India, joining the Indian Civil Service, and worked in Calcutta for over two years. He vaccinated several tens of thousands of people during that time, facing the same challenges of hesitancy and hearsay which the Covid-19 vaccinators faced over the last year.

As per his observations, his vaccine could reduce cases but not mortality. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1895 with his work on cholera research remaining incomplete.

However, with the plague outbreak in 1896, the colonial British government sought his help and he came to Mumbai. He was tasked with making a vaccine against plague, running against time, and with minimal resources. Haffkine’s vaccine was ready by the first quarter of 1897.

Once the effectiveness of his vaccine was established, hundreds and thousands of Indians were vaccinated as the plague refused to subside. While there was no CoWin-like system back then to track the vaccination process, it is widely believed that Haffkine’s work saved countless Indian lives. He was appointed as the head of the Plague Research Laboratory, housed at the Government House in Parel, then Bombay.

Unfortunately for Haffkine, the vaccine came under tremendous scrutiny and criticism when, in 1902, 19 individuals lost their lives after vaccination, contracting tetanus. The enquiry into what went wrong with a particular batch of the vaccine went on for years.

In the interim, Haffkine lost his job and was not involved in the active civil service. Only in 1907, the enquiry exonerated him after a detailed investigation. Throughout these years, the vaccine itself was not pulled back and Indians continued to be inoculated with the same vaccine and, perhaps, getting saved from the disease, which continued to make its way into different parts of the country.

Haffkine retired from the Indian Civil Service in 1915 and died in 1930 in Lausanne, Switzerland. From the time of vaccine production in 1897 until 1925, the laboratory he set up in Bombay shipped more than 2.6 crore doses of the vaccine. This Parel laboratory was named Haffkine Institute in 1925.

The Haffkine Institute, now a state government institute, continues to work on several critical vaccines. It was also chosen as one of the sites for the expansion of the production of made-in-India Covaxin during the Covid-19 pandemic.

From Haffkine to the Poonawalla family, Maharashtra has a rich history of undertaking world-leading vaccination efforts. Just as befits the rich industrial, scientific, and commercial legacy of the state.

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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