The All India Peoples’ Science Network (AIPSN) has released a statement demanding the urgent expansion of public and private sector production to meet the country’s vaccine requirements to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement, released on May 27, also urges the expansion of vaccine related research and development at the earliest.
Keeping in view the current population in India, which is 130 crore, the number of vaccines required to vaccinate the entire population would be about 310 crore doses, allowing about 15% process losses, notes the statement. Further, for the 18+ population alone, India would require 218.5 crore vaccine doses, which is presently a distant dream, with production limited to only two domestic vaccine manufacturers – Bharat Biotech (which produces Covaxin) and the Serum Institute of India (that produces Covishield).
The statement highlights that this is despite the fact that India has been a pioneer in large-scale vaccine production even before the current pandemic and a major exporter of vaccines. However, “India, now, has a number of public and private sector units that can make a contribution to the expansion of local production of vaccines”.
The statement has been endorsed by 214 eminent citizens, scientists, doctors and academicians including T Sundararaman of the People’s Health Movement, Satyajit Rath of IISER Pune, D Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum, Tejal Kanitkar of NIAS Bengaluru, Prabir Purkayastha of Free Software Movement, Prof Archana Prasad, Partha Majumder of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Scientist Soma Marla of ICAR NIPGR New Delhi, Ranbir Singh Dahiya of the Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti, Jyotshna Jha of the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Biswajit Dhar from JNU, scientist Gauhar Raza, among others.
According to the statement, since the technology for Covaxin is “fully home grown, through collaboration between BB and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), a public sector R&D institute under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is an agency of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare”, the central government is entitled to make use of march-in-rights available to supporting government entities, as tacitly accepted by BB in extending technology transfer to three public-sector vaccine units.
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Criticising the government’s current vaccine policy, the statement notes that India has neglected its public sector units, because of which 90% of India’s vaccines today are sourced from the private sector as opposed to “80% of vaccines for the Universal Immunisation Programme being sourced from the public sector in the 2000s”. Meanwhile, the statement cites, countries like Brazil, Cuba and China are using public sector companies and institutes to undertake integrated R&D and production operations to vaccinate their populations and export to developing countries to meet their requirements.
The public sector has also been left out from receiving funding from the government, in contrast to the private sector, the statement said. It added that even though the Serum Institute “cannot by itself transfer technologies since it is itself making Covishield under license from AstraZeneca, it can certainly be nudged to sub-contract work to other units”.
Keeping in view that India has a large number of old as well as new facilities equipped with appropriate modern infrastructure, the central and state governments can make full use of all these facilities to expand local production of COVID-19 vaccines.
The AIPSN statement notes that there are 11 public sector units presently in India, some of which are almost ready for production. For example, the Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu, whose construction was completed as recently as 2016, needs just Rs 100 crore and some handholding to start the domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.
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Similarly, other private sector units can also contribute to the domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines. Further, companies that manufacture biologics have the capacity to be repurposed for manufacture of vaccines. For instance, the statement highlights, Dr Reddy’s Lab and at least five biologics have teamed up with Russia to procure Sputnik V vaccines in the country. According to AIPSN, there are nearly 30 such units which can be put to use for vaccine production.
Through such expansion of vaccine manufacturing, AIPSN states, not only can India meet its domestic requirement but also the international obligations “to which India, in particular SII, is committed having also accepted advance payments”.
The AIPSN therefore, suggests the following steps to be adopted with immediate effect in order to improve the COVID-19 vaccination policy in the country:
1. The existing public sector undertakings and state owned enterprises be revived and assisted to ramp up vaccine production.
2. The use of the Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu be handed over to TamilNadu Government with clear provisions allowing the state governments, public sector undertakings and state owned enterprises for contractual manufacturing of Covid vaccines using the facility.
3. Compulsory licenses or appropriate legislation be issued where required to enable interested parties for production of COVID 19 vaccines.
4. The conventionally used march-in-rights available to the Govt of India/ICMR be used to ensure technology transfer and handholding by Bharat Biotech to PSUs, SOEs and other Units to enable them produce vaccines for domestic use.
5. Indian companies that are planning to manufacture Sputnik V be assisted, as required, for scaling up.
6. SII, AstraZeneca and Novavax be persuaded to expand manufacturing in India through joint ventures or other collaborations with suitable public and private sector entities both for domestic use and export especially for the Covax facility.
7. Research on new vaccine development strategies and development of multiple vaccines be enabled and encouraged across research laboratories, public sector and private sector institutions. Genomic surveillance be increased appreciably and linked to viral efficacy and epidemiological studies, so that vaccines are constantly checked for efficacy against variants of concern enabling collaborative modification across manufacturers, as required, especially in view of emerging variants and for different demographics such as children.