The ICMR collaborated with Bharat Biotech to produce India’s first indigenous COVID-19 vaccine. What are the key takeaways from this public-private partnership?
The most significant components of the creation of this vaccine and this cooperation, in my opinion, have been total trust and mutual respect of each other’s calibre between the public and private parties. It operated in two ways: either the ICMR’s trust in Bharat Biotech or Bharat Biotech’s trust in the ICMR.
We determined from on that the measures we take must have a clear scientific basis, and everything we do must be published in scholarly journals.
As we all know, the scientific data on Covaxin that has been published in over 15 publications has been well received by the international academic community. These publications in highly acclaimed peer-reviewed global scientific literature cover the entire spectrum of vaccine development, whether it be preclinical development, small-animal studies, hamster studies, large animal studies, all phases of clinical trials, including the phase-III trial, which is one of the largest in the world. These studies also include the vaccine’s efficacy against the emerging virus variants, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta.
What impact has the experience of co-developing Covaxin had on science and public health in the country?
First, this experience has instilled self-confidence in us that India is now much more than the pharmacy of the world. It is also a vaccine superpower.
This confidence in being able to develop new vaccines from scratch now pervades the industry and the academia, and it is the right time to use our learnings from these experiences to develop new vaccines for other diseases and scale them up.
This should be not only done for the Indian population but for the world population at large, as the underlying principle of all our efforts is ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or ‘the world is one family’.
Second, for decades altogether, we were largely known as a powerhouse of generic drug-making. This experience in COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for us to move up the value chain and take a leap into drug discovery or vaccine-discovery space to be specific. If this has to take off, the industry and academia will have to collaborate in a big way.
This is already happening in the engineering space, where professors in IITs do consultancies and part-take in innovation. The mechanism is yet to be streamlined in the biomedical space, and medical sciences. Our academia in these spaces will have to be incentivised and need to benefit from the intellectual property they create, for them to be motivated about innovation. Those pathways we still have to establish.
Do you think this experience of developing a vaccine in PPP mode can be replicated for other diseases?
What are the steps and decisions that will help India reach its 100-crore vaccination goal?
First, the unstinting dedication and untiring efforts of our front line workers and healthcare professionals involved in the vaccination drive. Second, the rich experience of carrying out one of the world’s largest universal immunisation programmes and third, an aligned holistic approach of different arms of the government with a singular focus to make the vaccination drive a success contributed to this journey.
Also what is working is the ability of the whole of the government to work together as well as strike successful public-private partnerships, where needed, that has resulted in a series of victories in these times of extreme uncertainties.
Whether it be the development of CoWIN or the pragmatic way we prioritised vaccination of different groups, getting right many of those small steps nestled within the large vaccination drive will lead to India achieving the 100 crore vaccines milestone. Beyond all, the country has shown a clear commitment to public health, and that paid off.
Yes, I think this exemplary model, where the public and private partners worked with scientific rigour on a fast-track mode to deliver a product on time can serve as a template for developing vaccines for other diseases. When we worked together, we were always working on a timeline even when we were racing against time. All along there was mutual respect, clear communication, and the setting of concrete goals in the project. This generated a momentum that I feel should not be lost and should be utilised for other projects.
Also, we have now proved to the world that with our limited resources and our frugal mindset, India has developed a safe, efficacious, and cost-effective vaccine that is beneficial not only for the global south but even for the global north.
Are you confident of India reaching its target of vaccinating all adults by the year-end?
I think our system is currently working like a turbocharged well-oiled machinery vaccinating at a very fast rate, and we are advancing rapidly to reach that target. I think the world is watching us and will be witness to the fact that our vaccination drive has not only been very agile but also very responsive and responsible.