The sudden outbreak of Coronoavirus from the Chinese city of Wuhan left the world scrambling for cover – first on dealing with its spread, its symptoms, whether it was infectious or non-infectious; secondly and most importantly, were there any immediate antigens?
India put its act together to insulate its citizens from infection around mid-January and issued travel advisories to China. Thermal screening of incoming passengers from China and Hong Kong was introduced after the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued comprehensive technical guidance and advice to all countries on how to detect, test and manage potential cases, based on what was known about the virus at that time.
As the viral infection spread to more countries and the WHO declared it as a global pandemic, with no readily available treatment, other than precautionary, Indian laboratories joined global efforts to find an effective vaccine for COVID-19.
As the burden of COVID-19 spiralled, India set up an inter-disciplinary national task force headed by Professor K. Vijay Raghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government and Dr. Vinod K Paul, Member Health, Niti Ayog with the mandate to monitor progress in the field of vaccine development in the country and abroad and drug trials.
The task force also has experts from Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Department of Science & Technology, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Biotechnology, Defence Research & Development Organisation, Directorate General of Health Services and Drug Controller General of India.
India’s approach for development of an effective drug was three-pronged–first re-positioning of existing drugs, second development of new candidate drugs and molecules and third, plant extracts and products for general anti-viral properties.
The search for an effective vaccine for COVID-19 was unprecedented on a scale never done in the history of mankind. According to WHO, about 160 vaccines are at various stages of development.
The first to jump into the fray in India was pharma major Zydus Cadila, which had started pre-clinical animal trials in March using recombinant DNA technology and reverse genetic technology. Seven Indian pharma companies, including Zydus are now working at different stages of vaccine development.
The second candidate approved by the Drug Controller General of India for human trial is ‘Covaxin’, jointly developed by National Institute of Virology, under ICMR and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech. Trials for Covaxin have started at 12 health facilities including All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi and Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Rohtak.
Meanwhile, Serum Institute in Pune – world’s largest vaccine manufacturer has joined hands with British-Swedish pharma company AstraZeneca to produce a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca named ‘Covishield’. The vaccine is currently undergoing phase 3 human trials in Brazil.
Once the regulatory approvals are obtained, Serum Institute would produce 3 to 4 million doses, according to the company. It claims to have manufacturing capacity to scale up production to 100 million per month.
According to Oxford University scientists involved in the development, Covishield has shown promising results and appears to be safe and induces a strong immune response with the body.
With the unprecedented race across the world to develop an effective vaccine against COVID-19 is on, the disease has already affected over 1.5 crore people and has taken the lives of 6.32 lakh people across the globe.
Besides the two major drug candidates, several other laboratories are also making efforts to develop an effective drug against COVID-19 including CSIR. This also includes some laboratories under the Indian traditional system of medicine.
Chief of the Interdisciplinary Research and Development Task Force Dr. Bhushan Patwardhan has said, certain laboratories under AYUSH Ministry would begin prophylactic trials and randomised control trials as an adjunct treatment to standard care. He said, 80,000 police personnel from Delhi would also be involved in the prophylactic trials.
Besides different task forces, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is monitoring the development of effective treatment for COVID-19 at every stage to overcome procedural delays. If the current human trials are successful, India can hope to come up with a life-saving vaccine for the unprecedented global pandemic by this year end.
Script: N. BHADRAN NAIR Executive Editor, Indian Science Journal