June 13, 2021

Urgently Expand Public & Private Sector Production of Vaccines: AIPSN

NEARLY 215 scientists, academics, and doctors of the country endorsed and released a press statement prepared by AIPSN on May 31, urging the central government to expand the production of vaccines. It asked for expansion of research and development (R and D) to meet India’s vaccine requirements.  “There is  a need for new strategies with the present Indian population of over 130 crores, the number of vaccines required to immunise the entire population would be about 310 crore doses (3.1 billion doses) or 218.5 crore doses for the 18+ adult population, allowing about 15 per cent process losses”, the statement said.

The AIPSN asked the government, why it has to rely on just two private domestic manufacturers, Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech, to produce Covid-19 vaccines, a constraint that is painfully obvious today. India, now, has a number of public and private sector units that can make a contribution to the expansion of local production of vaccines. Presently two vaccines namely COVISHIELD of Serum Research Institute (SII), Pune and COVAXIN of Bharat Biotech (BB), Hyderabad are available for supply in India.

The scientists asked the central government to make use of ‘march-in rights available to supporting government entities, as tacitly accepted by BB in extending technology transfer to three public-sector vaccine units. Up to the year 2000, 80 per cent of India’s vaccines for the universal immunisation programme were sourced from the public sector. Today, 90 per cent are sourced from the private sector, that too at a higher cost. Brazil, Cuba , and China are using public sector companies and institutes to undertake integrated R and D and production operations to vaccinate their populations and export to developing countries to meet their requirements. In contrast, India has neglected its public sector units. India has a large number of a few decades old facilities as well as new facilities equipped with appropriate modern infrastructure, the statement pointed out. “The central and state governments should be making full use of all these facilities to expand local production of COVID vaccines,” the statement asserted.

AIPSN also pointed out that currently, India has 11 public sector units. Some are almost ready to go into production. The government has taken some initial steps in the direction of using a few selected units. Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu, whose construction was completed as recently as 2016, needs just one hundred crore rupees and some handholding to start the domestic production of Covid vaccines. There are a number of private sector units that can also contribute to the domestic production of Covid vaccines, such as Biological E, Hyderabad, Panacea Biotech, Solan etc. In addition to vaccine manufacturing companies, there are also companies that manufacture biologics that have the capacity to be repurposed for the manufacture of vaccines.
The statement highlighted that already, Dr. Reddy’s Lab and at least five biologics have teamed up with Russia to procure the Sputnik-V, vaccines in the country. In all, there are close to 30 units that can be involved in the production of COVID vaccines. Such expanded manufacture in India would enable meeting domestic requirements as well as international obligations to which India, in particular SII, is committed having also accepted advance payments. Procurement of already approved vaccines from abroad by private sector units is also an option, the scientists said.

While the private sector is itself getting ample albeit highly belated funding from the government, the public sector is still not getting requisite support. Only recently some relatively small government grants have been given for the manufacture of Covaxin under license to state-owned companies such as Indian Immunologicals Limited, Hyderabad, Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Limited, Bulandhshahar, and Haffkine Institute, a Maharashtra state PSU as called for by its chief minister. “SII cannot by itself transfer technologies since it is itself making Covishield under license from AstraZeneca, it can certainly be nudged to sub-contract work to other units,”  the group of scientists highlighted.
Both SII and Bharat Biotech could be appropriately persuaded to handhold these other units as one way of paying back their own long-standing obligations to the public sector and the Indian state.
The statement stated that genomic surveillance be increased appreciably and linked to viral efficacy and epidemiological studies, so that vaccines are constantly checked for efficacy against variants of concern enabling collaborative modification across manufacturers, as required, especially in view of emerging variants and for different demographics such as children.
Some of the scientists, academics, and doctors who endorsed this statement include:
Professor Gagandeep Kang;  Shahid Jameel, Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University; T Sundararaman, Global Coordinator, Peoples Health Movement;  Satyajit Rath, visiting faculty, IISER Pune;  Vineeta Bal, scientist (retired), National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi;  Professor T R Govindarajan, (retired) IMSc; Professor  Tejinder Pal Singh, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; John Kurien,  Azim Premji University; R Ramanujam, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai;  Ram Ramaswamy, visiting professor, IIT Delhi and  D Raghunandan Delhi Science Forum.