Prime Minister Narendra Modi while making his fourth televised address to the nation since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic on April 14 made an ardent appeal to the young scientists of India: “Friends, while India has limited resources today, I have a special request for India’s young scientists – to come forward and take a lead in creating a vaccine for coronavirus; for the welfare of the world, for the welfare of the human race.”
It had the emotional and rhetorical pitch. It showed that Prime Minister Modi was keen that India should grab the opportunity at a time of global calamity to come up with the vaccine which would also be an economic windfall for India.
The Press Information Bureau (PIB) release talked about Modi’s meeting with the COVID-19 task force on May 5. It said, “The PM took a detailed review of the current status of India’s efforts in vaccine development, drug discovery, diagnosis and testing. Indian vaccine companies are well known for their quality, manufacturing capacity and global presence. Today in addition, they have come across as innovators in early-stage vaccine development research. Similarly, Indian academia and start-ups have also pioneered in this area. Over 30 Indian vaccines are in different stages of corona vaccine development, with a few going on to the trial stages.” Of course, there are no details about which of these companies have emerged “as innovators in early-stage vaccine development research.” Principal Scientific Adviser K VijayRaghavan reiterated the statement at a press conference on May 28.
At his May 5 meeting, the prime minister also mooted the hackathon for drug discovery. The PIB note said: “Appreciating the scientific coming together of computer science, chemistry and biotechnology in drug discovery, the PM suggested that a hackathon be held on this subject, linking computer science to synthesis and testing in the laboratory. The successful candidates from the hackathon could be taken up by the start-ups for further development and scaling up.”
Chief Innovation Officer in the Ministry of Human Resource Development Abhay Jere announced on May 25 that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) will hold a Drug Discovery Hackathon – the dates are to be announced soon – to find drugs to deal with COVID-19 which will be open to all globally, and the CSIR will pick up the most promising drug candidates.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had set up six committees to look at the different aspects of dealing with COVID-19, including one exploring vaccines and drugs. This was announced through a press release signed by ICMR Director-General Balram Bhargav. But the press release constituting the committees has disappeared from the ICMR website. On May 9 a one-paragraph ICMR press release read: “Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) have partnered to develop a fully indigenous vaccine for COVID-19 using the virus strain isolated at ICMR’s National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. The strain has been successfully transferred from NIV to Bharat Biotech International Ltd. (BBIL). Work on vaccine development has been initiated between the two partners. ICMR-NIV will provide continuous support to BBIL for vaccine development. ICMR and BBIL will seek fast-track approvals to expedite vaccine development, subsequent animal studies and clinical evaluation of the candidate vaccine.”
There was nothing to show how the decision was made, whether the committee on vaccines and drugs, had evaluated various options and recommended this one. News reports indicated that the committee was dissolved though there was no official communication about it from the ICMR itself.
The BBIL had announced on its company’s website on April 3 that it had a tie-up with the Wisconsin-Madison University and a pharmaceutical company FluGen to prepare COVID-19 vaccine to be called CoroFlu.
On May 29, Hyderabad-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratory, Centre for Cellular and Microbiology (CCMB), had announced that it has isolated the COVID-19 from Indian samples, and it is preparing a lab-generated virus culture which could lead to the discovery of vaccine or drugs and which could be used by other laboratories for research purposes as well.
Of course, the hope for a vaccine or drug to counter COVID-19 is intense but it may not be enough to lead a research laboratory to success. The process is arduous and long between the first glimmer of a breakthrough and the final deliverable product. Political leaders and pharmaceutical companies want the vaccine and drug discovery jig to happen in a matter of months which takes years. Scientists want to fast-forward too, but they know that there are no miracles.
In an interview with The Federal, Dr Rakesh Mishra, director, CCMB, explains the work being done at the centre to find the coronavirus vaccine. Excerpts:
There are two developments in the announcement made on May 29. First, CCMB researchers have isolated the Sars-CoV-2 strain from the samples of Indian patients, and that at the same time you are able to grow epithelial cells, the Vero cells, which express the receptor ACE-2, that provides the gateway to COVID-19 to enter the cell and establish a basis. How do you plan to use the two — Sars-CoV-2 and the Vero cells — to get a possible vaccine and the therapeutic drug?
Using our cell culture system, we are able to produce a large quantity of SARS CoV2 virus in the lab. This can be inactivated (by eating or by chemical means) and used as a vaccine candidate directly. For testing drugs against COVID-19, the cell culture system is very useful as the potential drug is likely to inhibit the replication of the virus in the cell culture and rescue cells from getting infected by the virus.
Would you say that you have the base on which to work towards a vaccine or a drug?
The cell culture system for the virus provides platform for testing drugs and making potential vaccine candidates.
What will be the timeframe for this line of experimentation to reach a successful stage?
It is difficult to project the timeframe for the vaccine, because the objective of our lab is to provide the vaccine candidate. The testing, particularly, in patients and trials of different stages take their own time. Similarly, for the drugs, our cell culture platform of the virus means to screen potential drugs from among the candidates, and once the drug processes this screen, it can be taken to safety and efficacy trials in patients. Depending on whether it is a new drug or a known drug, repurposed timelines can vary from several months to several years.
Are there enough genome sequences of COVID-19 in India at the moment? Is it the case that getting a full genome sequence is tough because the samples may not always yield the sequence?
India has submitted more than little over 300 genome sequences of this virus which are not enough to come up with precise conclusions. While there is a sequencing capacity in many places including CCMB, getting viral samples from different states has been difficult. I hope this difficulty is sorted out soon.
Is there a race between the CCMB and other laboratories to get to the vaccine or drug before the others?
Efforts to get a vaccine against COVID-19 across the world is of unprecedented scale. This is healthy competition as the world needs multiple vaccines in a large quantity and at an early date.
Will this project be exclusive research by CCMB or a collaborative effort, either with virology institutes at home or abroad?
CCMB is a research laboratory that addresses fundamental questions of modern biology, using cutting-edge technologies and wherever possible uses this technology for problems of societal relevance. For drugs and vaccines, we collaborate with companies that can take the potential leads to the market.
Do you think once the laboratory work is done, there are enough competent Indian pharmaceutical companies, which can manufacture the vaccine on a large scale at a short span of time?
Yes, but reasonably quick time may be several months at least. It is unsafe to make predictions about time in this case.