July 1, 2020: In just about two months or so from now, India could become the first country to commercially produce and market its own robust vaccine that will provide immunity against Covid-19, thanks to efforts at the privately-owned Serum Institute of India in the western Indian city of Pune, some 150-kms east of the country’s commercial hub Mumbai.
Ever since it emerged late last year from Wuhan, China, Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories and, as of July 1, had infected 10,591,222 people and killed 515,022 victims. It is also ravaging the global economy, and has prompted a race to develop and market a vaccine.
Around the world, 11 companies are busy in this effort but a top source at Serum Institute claims at least two vaccines being produced/developed by it could be available by late September or early October.
“At Serum Institute, we now have about six vaccines (against Covid-19) at various stages of production/development and research,” said this source. Of these, two are noteworthy. One is a vaccine developed by University of Oxford which has, said this source, given the original ‘cell bank’ to Serum for commercial production. He continued: “We have already produced two million doses of this vaccine. We understand third stage trials are ongoing, with some 15,000 volunteers around the world, and results are likely later this month (July).”
Assuming the third stage human trials also yield positive results, Serum says around six million doses will have been contract manufactured by it for University of Oxford by late September or early October.
But Serum is more excited about the two vaccines it has developed in-house. “Unlike the Oxford (University) vaccine, both of our (proposed) vaccines were specifically developed against Covid-19,” he said, adding that one of these indigenous vaccines is also at the third stage of human trials, having successfully cleared the first two stages.
Serum expects success in this third stage trial also but has begun commercial production, at its own risk, assuming it will receive permissions from the (government’s) Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR). Meanwhile, this vaccine has been administered also to some of Serum’s own employees and, we are told, “no one has shown any adverse reactions.”
By early October, he continued, about six million doses of this indigenous vaccine will be ready. Plans are to produce between 1 million and 1.5 million doses every month, subsequently. Our Serum source says the retail price of its locally developed vaccine could be Rs4500 (US$64). “We are trying to keep costs as low as possible so that that it can be widely administered in India,” he added. “Ours will be a single dose vaccine that will be effective for a minimum three years.”
Serum plans to market this vaccine in Asian and African countries – all relatively very price sensitive as compared to countries in Europe and North America. “Local companies (in Europe and North America) will market (their) vaccines in those markets.” No single company anywhere has the “formulation and filling” capacity for this vaccine, he pointed out.
In India, he continued, while the vaccine will most likely be administered free of cost through government channels, private healthcare providers will also have a significant role to play as, “the government by itself cannot reach everyone quickly.” Eventually, he presumes, the Covid-19 vaccine could be part of the government of India’s ongoing national immunisation programme.
Most probably, according to him, the government of India’s first priority will be to administer this vaccine to the elderly and very young who make up about 40% of the country’s population (1.3 billion) as well as to those now in (Covid-19) containment zones. Next could be those aged 35 and below, who are 60% of the population.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s offce, he added, is directly monitoring Serum’s work on the Covid-19 vaccines. “We send an update to the PMO at 3AM every day,” he said.
Serum is also at work on a second such vaccine developed by it. “Preliminary trials are over. We have sent it (the vaccine) to the laboratory and production will start as soon as we get permission.”
Separately, Serum is also developing a pharmaceutical product to treat Covid-19. “We are at the initial stage of R&D for this product,” he said. “Our approach is to isolate the (Covid-19) spike (in patients) and treat it.”
Serum Institute of India was set up in 1966 by horse racing enthusiast and stud farm owner Cyrus Poonawala to manufacture vaccines that were, till then, being imported. Serum’s website says it exports to 170 countries and is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, producing 1.5 billion doses annually against illnesses such as measles, polio, influenza. Forbes magazine estimated 79-year-old Poonawala’s net worth as US$11.5bn as of January 2020 and listed him as India’s 12th richest man in 2019.
Madhu Nainan , a senior Mumbai-based editor , is a regular contributor to Easternlink