India to play crucial role in COVID-19 vaccine process
As the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, India will play a major role in the vaccination efforts for COVID-19. The nation has been involved in the development and manufacturing of vaccines and will possibly also be involved in distribution once a vaccine is ready. Notably, India is among the worst-hit nations, with nearly 7.6 million coronavirus infections and over 1.15 lakh deaths.
Serum Institute to produce one billion doses
The Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII)—the world's largest vaccine manufacturer—has entered a deal to produce one billion doses of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. The SII has already initiated the production of two million vaccine samples. The institute has said it hopes the vaccine to be ready by December and expects licensing for distribution in India by March.
Off-the-record trial data very promising: SII CEO
The SII is conducting Phase III human clinical trials across India. SII CEO Adar Poonawalla said, "A lot of the data that I have seen off-the-record in a lot of these vaccines is very promising and more than three to four vaccines will be successful very soon in the next year." Separately, the institute has also started trials for an intranasal vaccine.
Other pharma firms have also entered vaccine deals
Meanwhile, Indian pharmaceutical firm Biological E has also struck a deal to produce 500 million doses of Johnson and Johnson's vaccine. Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech has a deal to manufacture one billion doses of Washington University's intranasal vaccine. Further, Dr. Reddy's has entered a deal to produce 100 million doses of Russia's Sputnik vaccine. India is also producing at least a dozen indigenous vaccines.
'50% of what we manufacture will be kept for India'
According to The Guardian, India's central role in vaccine development puts the global south at an advantage. Poonawalla has said, "50% of whatever quantity we manufacture will be kept for India and the remaining will go to low- and middle-income countries." The company would also halt the production of other vaccines—such as measles, mumps, rubella, and Hepatitis B—intended for the United States and Europe.
Biological E made no plans to reserve vaccine doses
However, Biological E CEO Mahima Datla said the company is committed to the COVAX vaccine alliance, which pushes for equal procurement and distribution. "We have never made trade-off decisions between the vaccine needs of India and global organizations such as UNICEF," said Datla, adding that there might be a demand-supply gap that might warrant reservation of the vaccine.
Mass immunization drive to be challenging in India
Ironically though, in India, a nationwide immunization effort is set to hit several roadblocks. The nation of 1.3 billion people has an effective mechanism for immunizing pregnant women and babies, however, there is no such mechanism for the rest of the population. India also lacks adequate cold-chain facilities, which is a requirement for vaccines that need to be stored at up to -70°C.
Financial concerns another hurdle in vaccination efforts
To note, the SII will likely price the vaccine at about $5. The government plans to immunize 250 million people by July 2021, which would require $1.25 billion. Microbiology professor Gagandeep Kang said the main worry is the scale and tracking. "How do you know who got the vaccine and who didn't—and the fact that the storage conditions needed are still an unknown."
Kang warned about anti-vaccination movement
Kang also warned about anti-vaccination conspiracies taking root in rural India. Kang said, "I worry that the longer it takes for a COVID-19 vaccination program to roll out in India, the more anti-vaccine conspiracies theories and resistance we will have to deal with."