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Wary of lowering standard to fast-track a vaccine, says Nobel Laureate

“For vaccines that haven’t undergone clinical trials, they must be producing data first. That is my view, that is a scientist’s view. But politicians have to act, it is up to the governments ultimately,” said Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramak-rishnan.

Written by Sohini Ghosh | January 12, 2021 1:58:30 am
Covid vaccine standard, coronavirus vaccine clinical trials, Nobel Laureate on fast tracking covid vaccine, Venkatraman Ramak-rishnan, Indian express newsNobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramak-rishnan

Urging India to invest more in science to emerge as a knowledge-based economy, Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramak-rishnan on Monday mentioned about being wary of “lowering standards to fast-track a vaccine”.

An Indian-born British-American structural biologist who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Thomas A Steitz and Ada Yonath “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”, Ramakrishnan, popular as Venki, was interacting virtually with academicians and researchers of the Ahmedabad University Monday. The session was moderated by Patrick French, the university’s dean of the school of arts and sciences.

To a question from The Indian Express on clinical trials and Indian policymakers’ move such as the restricted emergency use clearance given to Bharat Biotech-ICMR vaccine candidate, Covaxin, Ramakrishnan said, “Most of us would be very wary of lowering standards to fast-track a vaccine.”

He added that a vaccine must not be used until data is produced.

“For vaccines that haven’t undergone clinical trials, they must be producing data first. That is my view, that is a scientist’s view. But politicians have to act, it is up to the governments ultimately,” he added.

“India needs to invest much more in science. My feeling is, the Indian government is not doing enough but Indian industries are doing even less… This needs to improve if India wants to compete in the 21st century. Days of cheap labour will disappear owing to automation. India has to become a knowledge-based economy. So, would urge India to stop these stupid internal squabbles,” Ramakrishnan said.

An alumnus of MSU Vadodara, Ramakrishnan said, “One thing that is different from when I was growing up in India and now, is that, earlier universities were often fairly good in science. They had at least one or two professors in each department doing reasonably good work. Over the next two or three decades, the focus shifted from the universities to the central institutes (such as Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER)) and that decoupled education from research, which the government is trying to reverse now… You cannot raise the average unless you have more money to improve the average. And that cannot come from the government alone… I think private institutions have a role to play.”

Referring to the politics-science debate, he said, it is up to the government to decide which disease it has to tackle on priority. “But after deciding the large priorities, it should then be left up to the scientists on how to implement those priorities. For example, (US president) Richard Nixon started a war on cancer but he cannot tell scientists that he wants them to tackle cancer with some particular drugs…,” he said.

Ramakrishnan said the coronavirus mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine has shown that the “(mRNA) technology is impressive”, especially given that it has shown to be effective against mutated versions of the virus. He said there was great “potential” in the technology to address other ailments as well, but added that some areas required to be looked into and addressed with respect to mRNA vaccines, including the “problems of distribution”, given the extremely cold storage temperature it requires to keep the molecule stable, and “the cost” which is manifolds of other vaccine formats such as live-attenuated or inactive vaccines.

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