Race for vaccine against coronavirus heats up in India; 6 firms in the fray

Indian players are working round the clock to ensure they have a candidate fast.
As Chinese research firm may have made news by becoming the first organisation globally to enter phase-II of clinical trials to find a vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) but Indian drugmakers are not far behind.

Six Indian drugmakers are in race to make a Covid-19 vaccine and, on basis of what these developers say, India may have a vaccine by next year as most candidates are already in animal-trial phase.

Gagandeep Kang, the vice-chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said Cadila Healthcare (Zydus Cadila), Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech, Indian Immunologicals, Mynvax, and Biological E are working to vaccines for Covid-19.

“There is hope of a vaccine next year, but it is always a question of speed, science, safety, efficacy, and luck,” Kang, who is also the executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, said.

Of the players in fray, Serum Institute has indicated it may be possible to have a viable vaccine only by the second quarter of 2022. It had earlier given a timeline of end of 2022, but revised it later. It is working on two vaccine candidates, which are now in the animal trial phase. So are Zydus Cadila’s vaccine candidates — one of the early movers in this area in India. It has two candidates under development — a DNA vaccine and another a live weakened recombinant measles vaccine against Covid-19.

Its DNA vaccine will work against the viral membrane of the protein responsible for the cell entry of Covid-19 virus. In the second approach, which is being developed by its European research arm Etna Biotech, it is working with a live attenuated (weakened) recombinant measles vaccine that will induce long-term neutralising antibodies, which will protect against the virus.

Pankaj Patel, chairman of Zydus Cadila, said that they have taken multiple approaches to come out with a vaccine. "If the animal trials go well, we can expect a vaccine by the end of 2021. However, it depends on the results the animal trials show. The government, on its part, is moving very fast in this case and approvals, etc, are not a challenge," he said.

Zydus was also the first Indian company to create a vaccine for swine flu in 2010.

Experts feel while there is a race to make the vaccine’right now, once a drug to treat the disease becomes available, the demand for the vaccine may fall.

E Sreekumar, chief scientific officer at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, said it would take at least a year to see if a patient who has been administered the vaccine does not catch the infection. “Efficacy testing of vaccines take time. For example, to check whether antibodies are getting produced in a patient in sufficient numbers will take around six months,” he said.

Still, Indian players are working round the clock to ensure they have a candidate fast. “We do not have vaccines against several deadly diseases, and even coronaviruses. But with coronaviruses re-emerging every few years, there is expected to be a steady demand for these vaccines,” said a drug firm official.

Such is the scramble for the vaccine, Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer in terms of number of doses, has decided to test if a tuberculosis vaccine works to boost immunity against the coronavirus, too. The Pune-based institute has tied up with Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology and Vaccine Projekt Management that has a TB vaccine VPM10002 for trials. If the study yields positive results, the vaccine could be available in the market by early 2021.

Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech's vaccine candidate is expected to be in human trials by the fall of 2020. Krishna Ella, chairman and managing director, Bharat Biotech International, said: “We have started and aim to complete the ‘CoroFlu’ animal trials in 4-6 months. Refinement of the CoroFlu vaccine concept and testing in laboratory animal models at UW-Madison is expected to take 3-6 months.”

In the global scene, some of the leading firms have indicated that they can come up with a vaccine by 2021. For example, Johnson & Johnson, which recently unveiled a lead Covid-19 vaccine candidate, said the company plans to have clinical trials by September and win an emergency use by early next year. It aims to produce more than one billion doses by next year. Inovio, Sanofi, Moderna, too, are advancing their Covid-19 candidates.


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