No matter who develops vaccine, India will have to scale it up: ICMR chief

Since we are keen to get a breakthrough as soon as possible, this doesn't mean that the best of India’s medical professionals and research scientists should be second-guessed for their professionalism or adherence to the highest scientific rigour, sa
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has been leading India’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic for the last six months from vaccine development and drug trials to contact tracing and containment exercise. ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava told Ruchika Chitravanshi  that he’s hopeful of a vaccine soon and that many countries were in touch with India for its distribution. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

We understand that August 15 is not a deadline any more as far as Bharat Biotech’s vaccine is concerned. When can we expect to have a vaccine?

Given the outbreak of the pandemic, it’s India’s moral duty to fast-track the vaccine without compromising on the science, quality, and ethics part of it. We are expediting the vaccine by cutting down the red tape around it, not by skipping any vital process. 

India has two indigenous candidate vaccines in the clinical trial stage. These two have successfully undergone toxicity studies in animals and the data has been submitted to the drug controller. We are hopeful of a vaccine by the end of this year or early next year. Our trials are being done following the best practices and globally accepted norms and will be reviewed by a data safety monitoring board, as required. 

Since we are keen to get a breakthrough as soon as possible, this doesn’t mean that the best of India’s medical professionals and research scientists should be second-guessed for their professionalism or adherence to the highest scientific rigour.

What is the status of the plasma therapy trials and why haven’t the results been announced yet?

Studies on the plasma therapy are progressing and results will be announced when these trials will be completed and the data is analysed.

While we have the tie-up with AstraZeneca, what is ICMR’s view on the Moderna vaccine and how can India access it?

Moderna’s vaccine is still in the trial phase. India also has two indigenous vaccine candidates. India is the pharmacy of the world and is perceived as an important player in vaccine supply. Even if any other country succeeds in developing a vaccine before us, either India or China will ultimately have to scale it up. Many countries are in communication with India for vaccine distribution.

Covid cases are expected to cross the 2-million mark soon. Will we see a decline in cases after August and how prepared are we for any sharp increase in future?

Currently, a majority of active cases are confined to states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Cases in many other states are confined to certain districts. The rise in the number of cases is a result of increased testing across the country. Since we are now able to detect cases at an early stage, the situation is bound to improve in the coming days, with the recovery rate going higher.  Since this is a new infection and we are still trying to understand the epidemiology of the disease, it is very difficult to predict any increase or decrease. However, India has done exceedingly well till now considering the vast and diverse population of this country. 

There are reports of a resurgence of the disease in recovered patients. What does it tell us about immunity?

That is not true. So far, there have been sporadic cases and it’s not resurgence. There is a possibility that the right level of antibodies was not developed against the virus in the infected person even after recovery. There are many other theories and it is a matter of research to turn these  into concrete evidence.

There are huge disparities in the number of contacts traced between states. There is also a study done in South Korea that shows household contacts were much more affected than non-household contacts. Have we done any such analysis?

ICMR has already been advising states/UTs on testing and has laid down detailed guidelines, especially in containment zones. This is aimed at early detection of cases by contact tracing. ICMR’s strategy to test, track, and treat has helped authorities contain the cases to specific clusters. States/UTs are also actively working on contact tracing and they need active support from the public as well, which many times they don’t get. This plays spoilsport for all the hard work done by the authorities.

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