New Delhi: Earlier this month, a letter from Dr Balram Bhargava, the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), proposing 15 August as the release deadline for Covaxin, a potential Covid-19 vaccine, set the cat among the pigeons.
As a wrangle ensued between experts and the ICMR about the “impossible” deadline, Bharat Biotech, the company that is partnering India’s apex medical research body in the vaccine project, maintained a studied silence.
“No comment,” said the company spokesman as the debate raged on.
That refusal to be drawn into controversy is typical of Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, which has, in a space of about two-and-a-half decades, made a name for itself as a manufacturer and international supplier of low-cost vaccines, all while keeping a low profile.
At the heart of the company’s work is a “vision” to make vaccines affordable — what founder Dr Krishna M. Ella has made his calling card, the $1 vaccine.
The $1 vaccine
Bharat Biotech was founded in 1996 by Dr Ella, a research scientist in molecular biology, with his wife Suchitra. They had just returned from the US, where Ella completed his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
His vision was to create a company that would set the benchmark for vaccines and bio-therapeutics, and supply them to countries that could not afford them, at a low cost.
In news in recent weeks for Covaxin, Bharat Biotech has made headlines before with its $1 rotavirus vaccine Rotavac, which has probably been its biggest achievement so far.
Rotavac was launched in 2015 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It created waves because rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhoea in children and, the disease, along with pneumonia, is among the top killers of children in India.
According to a 2012 estimate published in a WHO bulletin, “Of India’s more than 2.3 million (23 lakh) annual deaths among children, about 334,000 (3.4 lakh) are attributable to diarrhoeal diseases.”
It was also a pathbreaking initiative because, at that point, the two other vaccines in the market — one by GSK and another by Merck — were priced several times higher.
The vaccine was developed for two decades from a strain isolated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences — Rotavirus 116E — in 1986-88. When the vaccine was announced in 2011, it just so happened that paediatrician Dr M.K Bhan, whose team in AIIMS had isolated that strain, was the secretary in the central government’s Department of Biotechnology.
The vaccine was the result of a tie-up between the Department of Biotechnology and Bharat Biotech.
Dr Ella’s message on the Bharat Biotech website reads: “At Bharat Biotech, our formula to Lead Innovation has led to healthcare solutions focused on neglected infectious diseases. Innovation is central to our culture…I am delighted that our vaccines and bio-therapeutic products are touching the lives of millions around the world.”
Every day, he adds, “our scientists strike out on new paths to create highly-effective vaccines focussed on the diseases of the developing world”.
“We are also pragmatic and persistent, given the fact that developing new vaccines and getting regulatory approvals is a long and arduous process.” he says.
Rotavac may have been its crowning glory but the company’s repertoire is diverse. Among them are BioHib, India’s only indigenously developed influenza vaccine, based on an Indian strain (CS-68) obtained from Christian Medical College, Vellore, JENVAC a Japanese Encephalitis vaccine developed in collaboration with the National Institute of Virology, and Revac-B mcf, a preservative-free Hepatitis B vaccine.
It holds 160 patents in all. It is a WHO-prequalified international supplier of vaccines – among those companies that have earned India the monicker of the “pharmacy of the world.”
ThePrint reached Dr Ella through a company official for a comment for this profile, but he was not available. “He is caught up in the clinical trials. He will talk when he has something to share (about Covaxin),” the official said.
The vaccine is currently undergoing human trials.