Three indigenous COVID-19 vaccine candidates show promise

30 groups are working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine in India


Thirty groups including academic and industry players in India are working on a vaccine against COVID-19, and about 20 of them are keeping a good pace, Professor K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the government, said on Thursday.

From a global perspective, out of the eight candidates that had shown promise, four were in the advanced stages and would be manufactured by Indian companies, while 2-3 of the six candidates being developed by national science laboratories had shown promise, said Dr Vinod Kumar Paul, member, Niti Aayog. Paul and VijayRaghavan were addressing reporters at the daily COVID-19 briefing.

Vaccine efforts in India were divided into four categories—mRNA (one component of the genetic material of the virus is injected), attenuated (a weak version of the virus), vector backbone and adjuvant vaccines. Those working on vaccine development are at different stages—a candidate being developed using the backbone of flu vaccine is in late pre-clinical stages and may complete pre-clinical studies by October, while a protein-based vaccine is being developed where the protein may be ready Feb 2021.

Aside from the indigenous efforts, there are global collaborations where either an Indian organisation or the global partner is taking the lead, VijayRaghavan said.

However, none of the vaccine candidates from India—be it a company by themselves or in collaboration with another—had reached human trials yet. Those in collaboration with a global partner might begin human trials in the next five-six months, he said.

“When a vaccine is made it is not like a switch that may be available to everyone on day one. This disease is...unusual...compared to other vaccine-preventable diseases, where people from the youngest to oldest will need a vaccine. It is not a rich or poor country’s disease, it is everyone’s disease. So the logistics of making the vaccine accessible to everyone is a huge challenge. And that’s also being discussed now,” he said.

The discussions include who are the most vulnerable, how will protective rings be formed by giving to specific kinds of people. Global consortiums of which India was a part, would step in to discuss issues around equity of access and risk mitigation.

Besides, VijayRaghavan said it was important to understand that the “first vaccine” would only be the first vaccine to be ready, and subsequent vaccines may be better—or improvised versions—versions of the first vaccine. In the vaccine development industry, research companies continue to work on improvising on factors such as lowering costs, removing cold chain or improving efficacy, he explained.

On the subject of the Oxford vaccine, VijayRaghavan said that it was “too early” to say what the efficacy might be, given that results from animal trials could be relied upon for toxicity and immunogenicity, but not disease response.

On the drug discovery track, scientific efforts were taking three approaches—repurposing existing drugs to see how effective they are against the virus, phytopharmaceuticals and extracts from medicinal plants are being tested and new drug discovery pathways. Drugs that were being tested and developed include the anti-viral Favipiravir, an indigenous phytopharmaceutical ACQH, the BCG vaccine, Tocilizumab, mycobacterium W, Arbidol, Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the All India Council for Technical Education are working on a high-end “hackathon” for computational drug discovery with students. “Students will be trained with information on how to do computational drug discovery. Once the candidates look good, there would be tie with start-ups to go forward,” said VijayRaghavan.

About 20 indigenous companies that had a production capacity of half a million test kits every day would be doing so until July, said Paul. Once the domestic demand was met, India would be sending the kits to other countries as well, he added.