Indian players in two minds about collaboration on Russian vaccine

Indian makers pointed out that Russia does not have the capacities to make the vaccine for its entire population
Indian vaccine makers are in two minds about partnering Russian agencies to make the Sputnik V vaccine for Covid-19 after the Union health ministry on Tuesday said the two countries have initiated dialogue. India is a key player, producing 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines.

A source at Zydus Cadila, one of the front runners in India’s vaccine race, said the firm was open to collaborations with Russia for the Sputnik V if the Indian regulator gives the nod. “There will not be any technological challenge to manufacture the vaccines here,” the official said.

However, the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume, Serum Institute of India (SII), and Hyderabad-based Biological E feel there is no clarity yet on the vaccine.

“We do not have much information on the Sputnik V and no one has approached us so far. So we are not considering it at the moment as we already have our existing collaborations (Oxford-AstraZeneca and Novavax), apart from our own vaccine candidates (repurposed BCG vaccine, for example) to focus on,” said a source in the company.

The health ministry reached out to firms to understand the preparedness to manufacture vaccines once a successful candidate emerges. An expert committee on vaccine administration has met the firms and taken stock of capacities available. Further, the government has made it clear that India will make the vaccine not only for itself but for the world, including for “key” neighbours and low- and medium-income countries.

A senior government official explained that the usual process to start such a collaboration is that a vaccine maker approaches the drug regulator armed with the data from foreign clinical trials, and seeks permission to conduct trials here. “It is in initial stages, and thus, no such collaboration has yet been forged,” the person added.

The source said the government has not yet reached out to indigenous vaccine makers, but there was no reason why it would not do so in the future.  

The reason India is going to play a key role on the vaccine front is because of sheer manufacturing capacity. Sample this: Serum Institute sold 1.5 billion vaccines last year. It is already gearing up with an additional 300-400 million doses for the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate Covishield by the end of this year. With a new campus, SII will have a capacity to make 1.95 billion doses by the end of 2020.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan had indicated on Tuesday that Russia and India are in communication for the Sputnik V and some initial information has already been shared. Russia has recently registered its vaccine candidate, which is now under Phase III clinical trials, involving over 40,000 people across 45 medical centres around Russia.

Indian makers pointed out that Russia does not have the capacities to make the vaccine for its entire population. However, they also said that since the results of the initial trials have not been made public, firms here and the regulator do not have clarity on the candidate.

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