Renu Swarup, secretary, department of biotechnology, ministry of science and technology, and chairperson of Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), spoke to Bappa Majumdar about the current state of the battle against Covid-19:
Vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon and is not happening for the first time. There are still uncertainties around how many do we need to vaccinate, to reach a collective safety mark. But one thing’s certain, at the stage of battle we are in, vaccination is absolutely our best bet to beat the virus. It must be a citizen driven campaign.
Hasn’t the way in which Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin was approved, led to vaccine hesitancy too?
This is an emergency that we’re all talking about, where time is critical. Every day people are getting infections, many are dying of them. We have not gone through a pandemic earlier, and there’ll be viewpoints and positions, and we can debate and discuss those. Here we have safety data, and immunogenicity which is critical, and those data have been published in eminent journals. Then you have the drug regulator, one of the most reputed national regulatory agencies, which will never take a decision that will hurt citizens’ safety, and have the experience of rolling out so many vaccines behind us and that collective wisdom has decided, in an emergency this is our best strategy.
People talk about achieving herd immunity already.
Today, whether we have herd immunity or not, I don’t think it’s easy to say that. We still have to be careful, there’s nothing like herd immunity at the moment, so we must take our vaccines and we must continue with all Covid protocols. We haven’t yet spent sufficient time with the virus to know all aspects of it. For instance, we don’t know how long the immunity lasts post-natural infection. When we talk about herd immunity, how long is that going to last? We should not make assumptions here.
Some scientists feel that those who have recovered from Covid-19 should be asked to delay their vaccination.
We do not yet have sufficient data to guide us on whether a recent infection could be one of the parameters or markers to decide on who will not be given the vaccine. The fact is, even if it’s a small number, there have been cases of reinfection, and when you prioritise a group, you cannot risk a subset of that group without adequate evidence guaranteeing their safety.
What about the other vaccine candidates?
Our scientists have done a phenomenal job in terms of readying the robust pipeline of vaccine candidates. So apart from the two which are already in use, we’re expecting three to four to be ready to be rolled out in the next few months. It is this rich vaccine portfolio of diverse technologies that gives us enormous confidence to take on the battle against Covid.
How does the future vaccine pipeline look like in terms of roll-out and technologies that they use?
Those in the making include ZyCoV-D, from Zydus Cadila, which is on a DNA vaccine platform. Bio E’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate is based on classical vaccine technology of a protein antigen, SARS-CoV-2 Spike RBD. India’s first indigenous mRNA vaccine candidate from Genova is aiming to work on storage of 2-8°C, which if we succeed will be a breakthrough innovation. Work has begun on phase-I studies for Bharat Biotech’s nasal vaccine for Covid. Of course, we have a partnership with Russia on the Sputnik V vaccine, which has gone into phase-III trials, another adenoviral vaccine. On top, Serum Institute is working on two more candidates, Novavax has one vaccine candidate, Zydus has one more and Bharat has one more vaccine candidate. We have five in human trials and two rolled out, so seven in total.
How sure are we that these vaccine candidates will pass the scrutiny of international regulators for use?
Absolutely, they will. No doubts about it. Our manufacturers have proved themselves to be the best in the world. They supply over half of vaccines globally and have stood up to every scrutiny for each of the earlier vaccines which have been developed. Both Bharat and SII are in discussions with WHO for their pre-qualification for emergency use for their vaccines. We are also partnering with Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations on developing immunoassays. We are now working on the UK variant and actively planning to ensure that all our vaccines would work against, say the Brazilian variant or the South African variant. We are confident that whatever variant may come in, our vaccines will work.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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