Eminent scientists, doctors, researchers and activists demand quick revival of PSUs to spur India’s slackening vaccine drive

Published : June 01, 2021 16:16 IST

At a dispensary in north Delhi, people wait to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

More than 200 eminent scientists, doctors, academics and health activists demanded on June 1 that the Union government “urgently expand” national capabilities and capacities to increase COVID-19 vaccine production. Initiated by the All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN), the signatories to the statement include Dr Gagandeep Kang, eminent virologist and professor at the Christian Medical College (Vellore); Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka university; Dr Satyajit Rath, eminent immunologist associated with the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research; and Dr Sundararaman, doctor and Global Coordinator, Peoples Health Movement.

The statement pointed out that India would effectively need about 3.1 billion doses to cover its entire population of 1.3 billion people. It estimates that the country would need 2.19 billion doses to cover the 18+ population. The AIPSN estimates that about 15 per cent of the doses would be needed to account for “process losses”. The signatories asked why India, a country with a reputation as a leading exporter of vaccines, has had to rely on just two companies — Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech International Ltd. (BBIL) — for its vaccines.

Observing that India has a number of private and public sector companies that can contribute to vaccine production, the statement pointed out that Covaxin was a “fully home-grown” vaccine developed jointly by the National Institute of Virology (Pune), a publicly funded research institute, and BBIL. As a result, the government “is therefore entitled to make use of march-in-rights available to supporting government entities,” it pointed out. That this is indeed so had been accepted by BBIL, as is evident from the recent move by the government to transfer the technology to three public-sector vaccine entities.

Among the urgent steps demanded was the handover of the Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu near Chennai, which has been idle for several years, to the Tamil Nadu government. The facility would enable State governments, public sector undertakings and state-owned enterprises to engage in contract-manufacturing of COVID vaccines.

The AIPSN said that close to 30 units exist, which can be harnessed for manufacturing COVID vaccines in the country. Indeed, several of them are already in the process of establishing production capacities for manufacturing the Sputnik V vaccine. However, it pointed out that while private companies have been able to access “ample albeit highly belated funding from the government, the public sector is still not getting (the) requisite support”. The three PSUs that have now been allowed to produce Covaxin — Indian Immunologicals Ltd. (Hyderabad), Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Ltd (Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh), and the Haffkine Institute (Maharashtra) — have only received small grants belatedly, the statement pointed out.

The statement urged the government to “appropriately persuade” SII and BBIL to “hand-hold” the other units (private as well as public sector). This, it said, would be “one way of paying back their (SII and BBIL) own long-standing obligations to the public sector and the Indian state”.

The signatories urged the government to urgently mount a multipronged effort to maximise vaccine production. First, they asked the government to bring in Compulsory Licensing or appropriate legislation to facilitate entities that are interested and capable of producing vaccines. Second, they urged the government to leverage its “march-in rights” with respect to Covaxin and transfer technology to public sector undertakings, state-owned companies and other private companies in order to boost vaccine production. Third, they suggested that vaccine manufacturers engaged in the production of Sputnik V or other vaccines be extended help in order to scale up capacity. Fourth, entities such as SII, AstraZeneca and Novavax (whose vaccine is still undergoing trials) be “persuaded” to enter into joint ventures or other modes of collaboration with Indian companies in order to quickly expand the production base for vaccines in India. These could perhaps also be used for exports, particularly for the multilateral Covax facility.

Lastly, they urged the government to promote R&D in multiple vaccines by harnessing efforts in research institutions in the public and private sectors. The statement urged for increased genomic surveillance, “linking (them) to viral efficacy and epidemiological studies, so that vaccines are constantly checked for efficacy against variants of concern.”