India working on 30 vaccine candidates for Covid: Govt
Industry, academia and start-ups in India are working on at least 30 vaccines, principal scientific advisor K VijayRaghavan said on Thursday, adding that 20 of them are progressing at a good pace.
The focus is on four kinds of vaccine platforms, he said. First is an mRNA vaccine that uses a component of the genetic material of the virus and translates it into a viral protein within an individual’s body to produce an immune response. Second, a weakened form of the virus is injected into a patient that does not cause the disease but produces immune response. Third, the genetic material of the virus is encoded in another viral backbone and injected to produce an immune response. And fourth uses a viral protein developed in the laboratory along with a stimulant called an adjuvant to boost the immune response.
India is yet to get collaborators for the phase I and II human clinical trials. Vaccines are usually tested by groups, not just the developer, but hospitals, research institutes and companies also come together to test the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
“The first step in the vaccine manufacturing is to have laboratories that can work with the viral material and we have these. Then, there is a need for partnerships with companies to use the vaccines in animal trials and this is also happening for some. The third stage is the most difficult where we have to do the phase I and phase II trials, and we still do not have collaborators for this, but it will happen,” VijayRaghavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top scientific adviser, said at a media briefing.
“Usually, a vaccine takes 10 to 50 years and about 200 to 300 million (dollars) to develop; we are trying to achieve the same in one year. So the world is supporting hundreds of vaccine candidates and the cost is likely to go up to two to three billion dollars.”
Without naming any company, he said the preclinical studies of a vaccine using the flu as backbone is likely to conclude by October. Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech is working on the vaccine in collaboration with flu vaccine FluGen founders and the University of Wisonsin-Madison. By February 2021, another protein-based vaccine should also be ready, he said.
But even after a vaccine is developed, the logistics of making the vaccine available to all will be a challenge, he said. International collaborations help in providing equity of access and risk mitigation for the manufacturers.
At the same event, NITI Aayog member VK Paul said India will continue to give anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to healthcare workers as a prophylaxis. “There are many other ongoing studies apart from the WHO (World Health Organization)’s Solidarity Trial and we are also working on it. If you look at the experience of the medicine, it has been used for malaria and long-term use has also been seen in rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders; the drug is manufactured in the country and is readily available. The drug is known to increase the pH levels and prevent the entry of virus in cells and plausibility is high. The benefits outweigh the risk. So far, we think it is appropriate to use it,” said Dr Paul.
The WHO-led international partnership looking for possible treatments for Covid-19 stopped assigning patients to the HCQ arm of the trial pending the review of safety and efficacy data.
“Drug discovery for a particular disease is a difficult and a time-consuming process, and many candidates eventually do not work. So, if you buy enough lottery tickets some are bound to work,” said VijayRaghavan.
India is looking at several re-purposed drugs such as favipiravir, umifenovir and another drug used to treat psoriatic arthritis. The government is also trying to hold a hackathon, in which students aware of computational drug discovery will work with best computational tools to work on possible molecules to treat Covid-19.
Apart from vaccines and drug development, the third focus area is developing faster and better diagnostics. VijayRaghavan said various science institutes are working on molecular diagnostic tests, apart from the well-established Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test, that can detect the viral particles.
Paul said 20 Indian companies will reach a capacity of producing 500,000 testing kits a day by July. “Science will help us win the battle against Covid-19,” Paul said.