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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Vaccine hunt in late stage, 2 top panels coordinating and monitoring efforts

Scientists from within, outside govt, 4 key Secys discussing range of issues

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi | Updated: August 8, 2020 7:54:03 am
Vaccine manufacturing companies involved in “fill and finish” have to be roped in, the source said. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Several large pharma companies, which are currently in the middle of late stage human trials of their Covid-19 vaccine candidates, have been entering into agreements with countries on the administration of the vaccine. The Indian government, which is closely watching global developments, is working on three separate mechanisms, The Indian Express has learnt. Top scientists from outside the government, specialists from premier government research institutes, and Secretaries of four key central ministries — Health, Commerce, Finance, and External Affairs — have been deliberating on a range of issues around the administration of the potential vaccine.

Given the “rapidly evolving scenario across different countries”, two high power committees are deliberating on key issues related to vaccine development, highly placed sources in the government said. The first committee, headed by Principal Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister Dr K VijayRaghavan, is mandated to “fast track and accelerate the development of homegrown vaccines as well as the manufacture of foreign vaccines which have been given under agreement to an Indian manufacturer”, a top source said. The committee is tracking the vaccine candidates being developed by Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila, and is keeping close watch on phase 2-3 trials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine candidate, the source said.

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Vaccine manufacturing companies involved in “fill and finish” have to be roped in, the source said. “…In fill and finish, they do not actually manufacture (the vaccine), but only fill and finish (it) here,” the source said. “These facilities need to have assembly lines and other paraphernalia… Not everyone can do it.”

The mandate of the second high powered committee, headed by Dr V K Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, is “administration of the vaccine”, sources said. This committee has Secretaries to the Ministries of Health, Commerce, External Affairs, and Finance, besides several top scientists from outside the government and institutions associated with the Department of Biotechnology, and laboratories with domain knowledge of vaccines and virology, it is learnt.(Read Covid-19 vaccine tracker)

“Administration of the vaccine”, a source said, means “if and when the vaccine becomes available, how do you stockpile the vaccine, in what quantum and how to ensure the cold chain”.

The committee, the sources said, is looking closely at the cold chain requirements of the vaccines that are in advanced human trials.

“Different candidates have different cold chain requirements. The Moderna vaccine requires cold storage of minus 70 degrees. That is an extremely low temperature, which is not the case with the Bharat Biotech vaccine or the Oxford vaccine. The committee is also looking at whether the vaccine will be administered in facilities or outside,” the source said.

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This committee is looking at mechanisms to track specific groups in the population – healthcare workers, the elderly, and individuals with comorbidites. “In other vaccines, either the age group is defined or other conditionalities are defined. But in Covid-19, we are talking about universal immunisation,” the source said.

“We may start in a staggered manner, we may start with priority groups, but eventually we have to cover large parts of the population. And if and when this scenario comes about, one of the mandates of the second committee will be to track the people who are vaccinated,” the source said.

The sources emphasised that while the government is not directly in touch with any foreign vaccine manufacturing company, it is indeed participating indirectly in the process of supply of vaccines through a tripartite arrangement of the WHO, the vaccine alliance group GAVI, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

“The third mechanism through which India is working on the vaccine front is COVAX, which is a tripartite arrangement of WHO, GAVI, and CEPI. The three have come together. They are pooling the demand of all countries, and also pooling possible supplies from nine candidates that are in advanced stages of clinical trials. They will try to match demand and supply. Their aim is that at least 20 per cent of the requirement of all countries except advanced countries should be met through this mechanism,” the source said.

While India is an active member of both WHO and GAVI. CEPI was founded in Davos by the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum.

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