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Bitten by the bug

Scientists at the Serum Institute in Pune worked feverishly for two months to produce the swine flu vaccine. Now it will have to be tested on animals and humans before it can be sold. Aditya Ghosh reports.

health and fitness Updated: Sep 24, 2009 00:18 IST
Aditya Ghosh

Only the twitter of birds and the humming of machines can be heard here. Brows knitted, men and women walk from one building to another, ferrying bottles, vials and canisters. They talk to each other in whispers.

These men and women make up the fifty-member team developing a vaccine for swine flu at the Serum Institute of India, a company founded more than three decades ago by the Poonawalla family, which also owns a big stud farm nearby.

Last week, the team’s head showed Hindustan Times the first three vials of the vaccine — the culmination of two months of work.

“We were under tremendous pressure to develop this vaccine,” said Rajeev Dhere, 54, senior director, vaccines, at the company. “The pressure came not only from within, but also from society at large.”

It all began two months ago, in the last week of July, when Serum Institute became one of nine companies based in developing countries to bag a World Health Organisation (WHO) contract to develop the vaccine. Two other Indian companies, Delhi-based Panacea Biotec and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, were also among them.

It is important for India to produce its own vaccine because foreign companies have committed to supply their output to other parts of the globe, so we will not be able to meet our needs with imports, Dhere said. Imports might be more expensive as well.

Soon after the WHO declared in June that the world was facing a swine flu pandemic, it gave these nine companies the crucial virus strain from which to manufacture the vaccine. It estimates that the virus could infect up to two billion people, or a third of the world's population, over the next two years. In India, the swine flu virus has infected 8,696 people, of which 264 have died, health ministry figures show.

The team at the Serum Institute, which is one of the world's biggest makers of the measles vaccine, has now produced two forms of the vaccine - one that can be injected and another that is a nasal spray.

“We achieved our goal because each unit honoured its commitment,” said Dhere.

The team began with 10 scientists, but kept growing as the deadline approached. The skills of influenza specialists, undervalued until the recent outbreaks of various flus, proved crucial.

Leena Yeolekar, 45, a virologist who led the research unit, is one of them. Thirteen years ago, when she decided to specialise in influenza, her colleagues and professors said she was ruining her career.

“Then in 2003, came avian flu, and now swine flu,” she said, smiling.

But now, her task is done. Going forward, like all new drugs or vaccines, the Serum Institute's swine flu vaccine, too, must undergo clinical trials before it can be sold.

The vaccine must first be tested on animals and then on humans. Dhere's team began trials on mice on September 15. He hopes to complete all human trials by March 2010.

Commercial production is expected to start in April next year, after which the baton will pass to the Institute's pharmacists Ravi Menon and VB Vaidya.

They are getting ready to produce 20 million doses of the vaccine a month. For this, they will have to order 30 million fertilised hens’ eggs from various hatcheries. (The eggs we eat are sterile.)

The embryos in the eggs serve as little factories for multiplying the virus. The virus is then weakened to produce the vaccine. (All vaccines are essentially replicas of the agents that cause the disease.) But all that is still a long way off.

Right now, Dhere is fending off enquiries from worried parents in Pune, where swine flu struck with particular ferocity.
“They call me every day,” he said. “One parent of a child who died of swine flu called me and said that if a vaccine had been available, his child might have been saved. I almost broke down.”