Covid vaccine could come by 2020-end but realistic time-frame would be 2 yrs: Adar Poonawalla

At Off The Cuff, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla says his company has made a deal with its partners to provide at least 50% of Covid vaccine doses to India.

Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India | Photo: SII
Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India | Photo: SII

New Delhi: Vaccines for Covid-19 are at least two years away, but a few may get ready by the end of the year, said Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer.

“If we are looking for a realistic time-frame, I would say two years… but optimistically by the end of the year,” Poonawalla said Thursday in conversation with Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at a digital version of ThePrint’s Off The Cuff.

Pune-based SII, which produces 150 crore vaccine doses a year across the globe, is working on three vaccine candidates developed by the UK’s University of Oxford, US-based Codagenix and Austrian biotech firm Themis.

Of these, if the vaccine currently under trials by Oxford University in collaboration with British pharma giant AstraZeneca succeeds, it may become the first to come out by the end of the year. “Most vaccines are at least two years away, although some companies like US-based Moderna and UK-based Oxford are ahead in the development of a vaccine,” Poonawalla said.

Pricing of the vaccine may never be an issue restricting its access, he assured. “It’s a race against Covid-19. I don’t know if we’re going to make any money out of it or even get return on the investments, because every company will give this at a very affordable price,” he said.

“Covid-19, at least for us, is not about making profits. It will depend on innovators on how they plan to put ‘kayda-kanoon’ (laws) such as royalty prices on vaccines which may influence pricing,” he said.

However, Poonawalla added that he doesn’t think “any citizen is ever going to pay for vaccines because the government and the insurance companies will take on them”.

The SII owner also highlighted that his company has made a deal with its partners to provide at least 50 per cent of the doses to India. “If I can’t give half of the produce to my own country then sorry I can’t partner with you,” he said.

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‘Oxford’s vaccine candidate has 80% chances of success’

Speaking about promising candidates, Adar Poonawalla said the Oxford University vaccine was far ahead in trials.

Last month, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford announced a partnership for the global development and distribution of the university’s potential recombinant adenovirus vaccine aimed at preventing Covid-19 infection from SARS-CoV-2.

“…They (Oxford University) are so far ahead in trials and we were prepared to produce some doses at risk to build up till October. Hopefully, if the vaccine proves safe and efficacious, we can have a potential vaccine by the end of the year,” said Adar Poonawalla.

He said the team of scientists feels there is an 80 per cent chance of success, adding that “we are very confident”.

However, this week, Oxford University’s vaccine candidate failed to protect vaccinated monkeys from being infected by the virus in animal trials, though succeeded in preventing pneumonia. Moderna’s vaccine has shown efficacy.

On these results, Poonawalla said, “We shouldn’t get excited or demoralised by the interim results of the trials.”

He added, “It’s tough to say which vaccines are front-runners for Covid just yet. For the next 2-3 months, ignore the vaccine hype, as efficacy can’t be established until Phase-3 trials are concluded.”

Defending the Oxford’s vaccine candidate, he said, “Monkeys failed to produce antibodies in the Oxford tests doesn’t mean the vaccine can’t be licenced. If it can prevent pneumonia, upper and lower respiratory disease and thus save lives, it can then be regulated and licenced. I don’t think any vaccine can give you 100 per cent protection…”

However, the results have pushed SII to halt its plans to start producing millions of vaccines in anticipation of positive results.

“In light of all the trials, I have been advised to be a little more cautious, not so gung-ho, and make a few million doses instead of 100 millions of doses I initially planned,” he said.

Meanwhile, he still plans to produce aggressively, but it depends on “serious positive indications backed by data from the clinical trials”. “We can immediately revamp the production, once the data comes,” he said.

The company is in discussion with AstraZeneca on vaccine distribution considering the pharma giant’s “good global reach” to commercialise the Oxford vaccine when needed. “We are working out deals with other companies as well which I can’t disclose right now.”

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Allow Covid testing for everyone: Poonawalla

Urging the Centre and state governments to increase testing across asymptomatic individuals as well, Adar Poonawalla said, “We need to take a call now and just allow testing to whoever wants to do a test. I have been urging the government to allow more tests but they are not allowing testing without symptoms.”

In April, the SII partnered with Pune-based molecular diagnostics company Mylab Discovery Solutions — the first Indian company whose RT-PCR testing kit was approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research. Under the partnership, SII produces 2 lakh kits per day.

Poonawalla said several corporates “rung me up to check if they can test all their employees and open up (offices and manufacturing sites)”.

He warned that deferring the testing would only defer the suffering. “Mothers are unable to take kids for immunisation. Testing will be a big enabler for opening the economy,” he said.

“Herd immunity will come only after a couple of years. Don’t expect it to come in six months. It takes a long time for a disease to spread in different communities and geographies,” he added.

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