British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said 800,000 doses will arrive next week, with millions coming in the following weeks | Representative Photo: iStock

Indian firms join in as market race for COVID-19 vaccine heats up

The global hunt for coronavirus vaccine is now virtually a race against time, but the key question is who will hit the market first. At present, there are over 60 research initiatives worldwide to develop the vaccine against Covid-19. This is the biggest ever research and development initiative in recent times in search of a vaccine.

The global hunt for coronavirus vaccine is now virtually a race against time, but the key question is who will hit the market first.

While India too has joined the race in right earnest, with four domestic biotech companies announcing their plans to develop the vaccine, China had a head start in the research and now appears to be leading in the race with clinical trials in the communist country reaching a crucial stage.

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At present, there are over 60 research initiatives worldwide to develop the vaccine against Covid-19. This is the biggest ever research and development initiative in recent times in search of a vaccine.

The latest to join the hunt is Hyderabad-based Indian Immunologicals Limited (IIL) which has announced a collaborative research agreement with Australia-based Griffith University to develop the vaccine against novel coronavirus.

“After completion of the research, the vaccine strain will be transferred to Indian Immunologicals and we will work with the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation to further conduct clinical trials in a phased manner,” a spokesman of the company told The Federal.

IIL, India’s largest veterinary biologicals and the third largest animal health drug maker, is already working with Griffith University for conducting research and development of a Zika virus vaccine, which is currently at its pre-clinical toxicology testing stage.

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“The technology looks promising for developing a vaccine for prophylactic, active, single dose immunisation against coronavirus in humans, with an enhanced safety profile. The vaccine is expected to provide long-lasting protection with a single dose administration,” said the spokesman.

Earlier, three other biotech firms — Serum Institute of India, Zydus Cadila and Bharat Biotech — had unveiled their plans to develop the vaccine.

SII has partnered with US-based Codagenix for development of the vaccine. The company said it would apply for clinical trial and import of certain vaccine strains to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) next month.

Why China is ahead

Researchers in China, where the deadly virus had originated in December, made early efforts to sequence the genetic material of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. China shared that sequence in early January, allowing research groups across the world to grow the live virus and study how it invades human cells and causes the respiratory disease.

Chinese authorities have fast-tracked the work on vaccine development. If the ongoing trials in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, prove its safety and efficacy, then the plan is to quickly expand the scope and conduct additional trials in other countries seriously hit by the pandemic.

The first stage clinical trial for the vaccine started on March 16. “It has been proceeding smoothly, and its results will be published in April,” Chen Wei, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was quoted as having said by the local media. The vaccine will also be tried on foreigners based in China.

Though it is still not known when the vaccine will be available in the market, China is making an all-out effort to hit the market sometime later this year.

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Researchers affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences are reportedly recruiting volunteers for clinical trials. Clearly, the plan is to overtake the US-based Moderna which is the front-runner in Covid-19 vaccine development project so far. Moderna had started its Phase-I trials on March 16 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

Experts believe it will normally take 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available for use. A vaccine candidate, after clearing pre-clinical trials with small and large animals, has to go through three phases of clinical or human trials to prove its safety and efficacy. These human trials are done on different populations in varied geographies and will have to create huge data for regulatory sanctions.

During emergencies, like the present pandemic, fast-tracking of the regulatory processes is possible, but the vaccine candidates still have to go through various trials before being launched in open market.

Vaccine is not something that will happen overnight. “From a national security point of view, it is important for us to become one of the developers of the vaccine,” said Dr Sharvil Patel, Managing Director of Zydus Cadila. The company had recently announced an accelerated research programme with multiple teams in India and Europe to develop the vaccine.

Painstaking efforts

Typically, only one in 10 experimental vaccines make it through to regulatory approval. Clinical trials, an essential precursor to regulatory approval, usually take place in three phases. But there is a high level of attrition as experimental vaccines pass through these phases.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has infused a new sense of urgency to the vaccine development efforts, there can be no shortcuts. Vaccine development is a complex, elaborate and painstaking mission.

It is also a risky business proposition since very few vaccine candidates get anywhere near the clinical stage. Another problem is making sure the vaccine is accessible to those in need. And, many of the organisations presently involved in the Covid-19 vaccine race simply don’t have the necessary production capacity.

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Coronaviruses have caused two other recent epidemics – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In both these cases, work began on vaccines that were later shelved when the outbreaks were contained.

During the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, vaccine supplies were cornered by the countries that could afford them, leaving poorer ones in the lurch.

In the case of Covid-19, researchers are optimistic about developing an effective vaccine as the mutation rate of novel coronavirus seems to be slower than other viruses such as HIV. This means any vaccine developed for it will be durable.

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