Indian vaccine makers say can quickly adapt to tackle variants; Covid-19 total now above 11 million


Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan holds a dose of Bharat Biotech's Covid-19 vaccine called COVAXIN, during a vaccination campaign at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in New Delhi, India, January 16, 2021. - Reuters

NEW DELHI, Feb 22 (Reuters): Indian pharmaceutical companies Bharat Biotech and Biological E. Ltd announced that they could quickly rework their Covid-19 vaccine products to fight new variants once their genetic sequence is known.

In recent months, India has confirmed the presence of the variants first identified in Brazil, Britain and South Africa, which are believed to explain an upsurge in cases in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Kerala.

In all, India has reported more than 11 million coronavirus infections, the highest number in the world after the United States, and about 156,000 deaths.

"As we are seeing a lot of resurgence of cases, we are picking up samples from hotspots and clusters and we are trying to sequence them," Nivedita Gupta, deputy director-general of the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), told the BioAsia conference.

ICMR and Bharat Biotech have collaborated to develop India's first homegrown Covid-19 vaccine, which, along with another licensed from AstraZeneca and Oxford University, is being used in the country's immunisation campaign that has covered more than 10 million people since mid-January.

India is the world's biggest maker of vaccines, and its companies have promised to produce billions of doses of Covid-19 shots.

Bharat Biotech Chairman Krishna Ella said his company would mainly need data from the ICMR or the World Health Organization on the genetic sequence of any variant to quickly make an effective vaccine.

Speaking at a conference organised by the state of Telangana, home to India's vaccine hub Hyderabad, Ella said a product to tackle the South African variant could be made in 15 days and would not require any change to the manufacturing process.

Biological E. Managing Director Mahima Datla said there was no need to be "overly concerned" about the mutations.

"Eventually we don't know which variant of the virus, which mutants will take over, but we think that it's prudent to work on technologies that address the new variants as well," she said.

Biological E., which is developing a vaccine with Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and Dynavax Technologies, recently completed Phase 1/2 clinical trial in India, Datla said.

Its product uses the recombinant-protein technology in which a harmless agent is used to stimulate an immune response in cells.

"Once you know the variant, when it's sequenced, it is fairly quick to deploy into a vaccine," said Datla, whose company will also contract-manufacture Johnson & Johnson's shot.

Meanwhole, on record, India's COovid-19 tally rose to 11,016,434 on Tuesday (Feb 23) as 10,584 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours, said the latest data from the federal health ministry.

According to the official data, the death toll mounted to 156,463 with 78 new deaths.

There are 147,306 active cases in the country, while 10,712,665 people have been discharged from hospitals after medical treatment.

There was a decrease of 2,749 active cases during the previous 24 hours. The number of active cases in India had been on the rise for the previous five consecutive days.

India kicked off a nationwide vaccination drive in January, and so far nearly 12 million people, mainly health workers, have been vaccinated across the country. - Reuters

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