Vaccine rollout uphill task: Bharat Biotech

Suchitra Ella

Suchitra Ella, Joint Managing Director of Bharat Biotech International Limited


Hyd firm already produced 10mn doses of its still-in-trials Covaxin shot

The developer of India's main homegrown coronavirus vaccine is already producing millions of doses of its yet-to-be-authorised candidate but says the thought of supplying enough shots for half the country's nearly 1.4 billion people is daunting. "It's nightmarish," said Suchitra Ella, Joint Managing Director of Bharat Biotech International Limited. "Sometimes, I get goosebumps ... sometimes I wake up early in the morning wondering where are we. What are we doing? How do we get there?"

Bharat has already produced about 10 million doses of its still-in-trials Covaxin shot, ahead of an anticipated roll out by the middle of next year. It has a current annual capacity of 300 million vaccines and expects the first 100 million to be deployed by India, which has partly financed the development.

"We have started producing at risk because we know that it will be an uphill task ... in the Indian context it's small," Ella said in an interview. "That's a huge challenge in front of us when we think of the hundreds of millions of doses even if half the country needs to be vaccinated."

Bharat has spent about $70 million so far for developing Covid vaccines, and Ella said that early trial data suggested Covaxin has efficacy rates of at least 60%, which was a "conservative" projection. That may improve in the final human study, she said. The trial has recruited half of its 26,000 volunteers, and going into 2021 Ella expects licensing to allow inoculations for public use by May or June.

The lack of Phase-III trial data didn't stop Bharat from applying for emergency use authorization this month, though the company and Serum Institute -- which has submitted final-stage trial numbers -- have been asked by Indian regulators to provide additional figures on safety, efficacy, and immunogenicity.

The shot from Bharat Biotech could be crucial in making up any shortfall given the fierce competition for the limited supply of global front-runners.

Although India has secured access to over 2 billion vaccine doses, only 85% of its people can count on those shots.

Ella voiced confidence in the scale and ability of India's public immunisation system to deploy any Covid shot. Ella also pointed to India's polio programme, which uses a vaccine requiring -20 degrees Celsius storage. "That has been handled very effectively in India," she said. "It goes to show how strong and robust this mechanism is." (Bloomberg)

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