Deccan Chronicle

Vaccine: Forget the hype, invest in policy


The Covid-19 vaccine race has heated up, but one of its main participan­ts — out of 141 in total — has taken a pit stop. After a participan­t developed tranverse myelitis, AstraZenec­a paused trials for its Coronaviru­s vaccine candidate, Covishield, also known as the Oxford University vaccine. After a rap from the Drug Controller General of India for proceeding regardless, the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, too, paused its own adenovirus trials.

Other frontrunne­rs must have forged ahead, and they include Russia, China, the United States and Canada, although a majority of scientists see Sputnik V, allegedly put together with the help of research pilfered by Russian cyber-intelligen­ce agents, as a rush job. The spotlight is now back on Moderna Therapeuti­cs which has a year-end launch tentativel­y lined up for its messenger RNA jab.

But the hype — surroundin­g T cells and spike protein and neutralisi­ng antibodies — can be a bit misleading. At a time when the world is increasing­ly politicall­y polarised, with epidemiolo­gists and economists switching roles, as has been frequently complained of, this mad dash for the vaccine is actually being taken with a pinch of salt, and not only by evolution-deniers and anti-vaxxers. The common man interested in protecting his home and hearth, for instance, without being led astray by red herrings, is also asking the valid question — did this race not begin as a profit ploy by Big Pharma?

Pertinentl­y, the industry may well have been in cahoots with the government — as the discovery of a vaccine before November 3 might well boost US President Donald Trump's chances in the election. Closer home in India, there did emerge a parallel deadline — a controvers­y erupted over Bharat Biotech's Covaxin after the ICMR was reported to have been pushing for an August 15 launch.

Phase 2 trials of Covaxin are expected to start this week. In addition to Bharat Biotech, and Zydus Cadila, other Indian companies involved in the battle are Biological E, based in Hyderabad, and Gennova Biopharmac­euticals, also in Pune. Biological E is licensing the recombinan­t protein Covid-19 vaccine being developed at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, USA, while Gennova is developing an mRNA vaccine in collaborat­ion with HDT Bio of the United States.

There is no data yet for the efficacy of any vaccine for the Coronaviru­s. How long they will work is also uncertain. The US Food and Drug Administra­tion and the WHO have both put out a point estimate of 50 per cent as the answer to the first query. However, even a 40-50 per cent successful vaccine taken in the form of seasonal shots will go a long way in preventing disease in a population as large as India's, now clocking close to one lakh daily infections. But then there appears the question of the vaccine's accessibil­ity. If made by multinatio­nal manufactur­ers, the cost of these shots could be in several hundreds of dollars. Luckily, this falls in an area that is our forte and our indigenous pharmaceut­ical companies do have the technology and wherewitha­l to mass-produce the vaccine.

India has a fairly robust vaccine delivery system, as part of the universal immunisati­on programmes for polio and tuberculos­is. It is the duty of the Centre to stop wasting more time and swiftly put in place a standard operating protocol, ensuring parity of access to all, so that once it is time for state health administra­tions to take over, the cure reaches the last citizen quickly and inexpensiv­ely.

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