New Delhi: The Indian Council of Medical Research is entitled to a royalty of 5 per cent on the sale price of Covaxin and while trials are on to include children in the Covid-19 vaccination programme, it is possible that young children may not need to be inoculated at all, ICMR Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava is believed to have told a committee of MPs Wednesday.
Bhargava also is learnt to have told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change that it could be possible to break the chain of transmission if a vaccine has 60-90 per cent efficacy and if 30 per cent of the population can be given even single dose coverage.
At present, 17.42 per cent Indians have got at least one dose of the vaccine.
Bhargava is also reported to have told the MPs that while the jury is still out on Covid vaccinations in children and only the US is vaccinating minors in the 12-18 years age group, the experience from UK and Scandinavian countries seems to show that very young children are automatically protected and do not need vaccinations. Both the UK and Scandinavian countries had briefly opened primary schools.
However, Covaxin is being tested in the 12-18 age group.
Replying to a question from a West Bengal MP during the meeting, Bhargava was quoted as saying that during the first and second Covid waves in the country, 3.4 per cent and 4.4 per cent children, respectively, were affected but it is difficult to predict the behaviour of the virus if another wave occurs.
He also noted that the idea that the third wave would affect children the most is speculation.
The members of the committee also wanted to know from experts and government representatives if young children face any risk from vaccination. “The experts told the members that globally small children are not getting vaccinated as yet,” an MP, who wished to remain unnamed, said.
The Standing Committee had called Professor K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific advisor to Government of India, Dr V.K. Paul, NITI Aayog member and chairman, National Expert Group on vaccine administration for Covid-19 and officials of Department of Biotechnology and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to brief on vaccine development for Covid-19 and genetic sequencing of coronavirus and its variants. However, Dr Paul did not attend the meeting.
The MPs were briefed by the experts about the vaccines that are in the process of development and new vaccines that are being explored.
Members also wanted to know the different routes through which Covid vaccines can be administered.
“Some members asked if Covid vaccine could be administered through nasal spray. To this the officials replied that possibility is there and trials are going on, on new vaccines,” a second MP, who attended the meeting, said.
‘5% royalty on the sale of Covaxin entitled to ICMR’
A Telangana MP is learnt to have asked the technocrats whether ICMR is being paid a royalty for Covaxin and what that money is being used for.
Dr Bhargava is believed to have said that according to the Memorandum of Understanding signed with Bharat Biotech in April-May 2020, ICMR is entitled to receive 5 per cent royalty on the sale price of Covaxin.
No money has been received so far and the purpose to which that money can be put is not pre-determined, he noted. ICMR had transferred the isolated SARS-CoV2 virus to Bharat Biotech that eventually led to the development of Covaxin.
“Some members asked about how much money ICMR has received from Bharat Biotech. To this, the officials replied that so far government has not received any money,” an MP who attended the meeting, and wished to remain unnamed, told ThePrint.
Dr Renu Swarup, secretary, Department of Biotechnology, is learnt to have told the MPs that efforts are on to increase Covaxin production by roping in various PSUs and the target is to reach a monthly capacity of 10 crore doses by December.
On using the integrated vaccine plant in Tamil Nadu’s Chengalpattu for Covaxin production, she said that the health ministry has already set the process in motion.
In the context of the emergence of various vaccine variants, she is believed to have said that messenger RNA (mRNA)-based vaccines such as the one developed by Gennova Biopharmaceuticals has an advantage because they can be easily tweaked. The indigenous mRNA vaccine is also at an advantage because it can be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius.
Shekhar Mande, director-general of CSIR, further informed that the organisation is in talks with US-based pharmaceutical company Moderna to replicate its vaccine design.
‘No evidence Delta Plus variant more virulent’
Mande is also believed to have said that CSIR currently has a genomic surveillance programme with the government of Kerala and of Maharashtra to enable early warning about mutants.
When an MP from Uttar Pradesh asked if the council would set up a similar programme for Uttar Pradesh should the state government be willing, Mande agreed to do so.
Meanwhile, Swarup is learnt to have said that the Delta Plus variant, which has now been declared as a variant of concern, came up in the course of genomic surveillance in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and three cases have now been reported in Kerala.
However, Bhargava said that while it is presumed that Delta Plus is more infectious, there is no evidence yet of it being more virulent.
A question was also asked on why despite the original mandate of sequencing 5 per cent samples, INSACOG — the consortium of laboratories doing genomic surveillance in the country — has so far done less than 0.2 per cent of reported cases.
In reply, Swarup was reported to have said that the idea is not to do a numerical analysis but to ensure that the samples analysed are representative of the entire country.
That is why analysis is being done from sentinel sites, she said.
The standing committee meeting started off on a contentious note with some MPs writing to chairman Jairam Ramesh that a discussion on the vaccine development process and genetic sequencing of the virus should not be taken up as it could demoralise the scientific community. Treasury MPs had also briefly walked out of the meeting because of this.
(This report has been updated to reflect that NITI Aayog’s Dr V.K. Paul did not attend the meeting)