Interview by Sushil Manav
Covid-19, or SARS CoV-2, caused by coronavirus has thrown an unprecedented public health challenge before the world. With cases and deaths increasing by the day and no immediate solution in sight, people are eagerly looking forward to the much talked about ‘herd immunity’, which public health experts believe can save people from infection.
‘Herd immunity’ can be obtained in two ways: with a large number of population getting infected, which is fraught with the risk of a huge number of deaths, or by vaccination of people against the virus.
Though over a hundred vaccine candidates are in the field, ever since Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has announced that the Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford will hit the Indian markets by October this year, millions of people across the country are looking forward to this vaccine.
At the beginning of June, AzstraZeneca and Serum Institute of India (SII) had reached a licensing agreement to supply 1 billion doses of the Oxford University vaccine candidate against Covid-19 to middle and low-income countries, including India.
To begin with, by this yearend both companies had committed to provide 400 million doses.
The Tribune reporter Sushil Manav spoke to Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, about the vaccine, its possible launch time, the results of trials so far, among other issues. Excerpts:
Your company said last month that the vaccine will be available in the market by October. Are you still sure that people will get the first vaccine for coronavirus by October?
Based on the ongoing clinical trials, we are expecting the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to be available towards the end of this year.
Some scientists have said that any coronavirus vaccine is at least a year away.
Usually it takes about 4-5 years to develop a vaccine. Currently there are more than 100 vaccine candidates at different stages of trials. Each will take their own time, and as I said, we are hoping that the AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine will be available towards the end of the year.
The Oxford University vaccine has completed Phase-I of human trials. When can we expect the results of those trials?
The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine has already progressed to the Phase-III trials stage, and based on the results we are expecting to mass produce the vaccine soon.
How sure are you about favourable results of Phase-I trials?
Thus far, the vaccine has shown positive results in the on-going trials. We are optimistic that it will be an efficacious and effective vaccine for Covid-19. We will conduct these trials in India as well.
What is the production capacity of the Serum institute of India? How many vaccines per month are to be produced in the coming months?
Our facility is well-equipped with state-of-the-art technology and is ready to manufacture the Covid-19 vaccine. We plan to start production in nearly two months and have invested more than $100 million in this facility to meet the demand.
In terms of the production of vaccines, we will start making a few million of doses, and stockpile at a personal risk. Furthermore, as per our deal with AstraZeneca, we will start making 1 billion doses for India and other low- and middle-income countries.
India has a vast population of 130 crore, and most would be in a hurry to be vaccinated. Would you be able to cater to the huge demand?
Over the past 50 years, SII has built significant capability in vaccine manufacturing and supply in India as well globally. We have partnered with various institutions to manufacture their respective Covid-19 vaccine candidate. And in addition all our facilities are equipped with state-of-the-art technology to meet the vaccine’s demand domestically and globally.
Oxford University said in April that the vaccine would be made available on a not-for-profit basis. Can we expect the cost of vaccines to be within the reach of common people?
It is too early to comment on the price of the vaccine at this point. Once the development of the vaccine commences, we will be able to take a decision in the coming months. However, we are certain that it will be affordable, and hopefully will be procured and distributed by governments without charge.
Another manufacturer, Bharat Biotech, has announced indigenous vaccines and is in the process of starting Phase-I trials. Will your vaccine come ahead of theirs?
International and national health authorities, and institutions across the world are coming together to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. While all of us are in a race against time, there is no contention amongst companies. Whosoever makes and develops the vaccine will need multiple partners to manufacture the vaccine. I hope that whichever company develops the vaccine does not hide behind patents and makes it available based on royalties or a commercial understanding to manufacturers across the world to make billions of dosages at a fast pace.
Do you think you have taken a risk by betting on an unproven vaccine?
Since, we are not a listed company, we are not accountable to investors in terms of profits and returns. So we took the decision to manufacture at our own personal risk.