Bharat Biotech International’s Rotavac, India’s first indigenously developed vaccine, is coming to the market at Rs 54 per dose, even lower than the incredible $1 price point promised two years ago. It prevents diarrhoea, which kills lakhs of children, mostly in the developing countries. Last year, a joint paper by the project’s partners in Lancet found it as good as expensive alternatives from GlaxoSmithKline and Merck. Coming close on the heels of landmark achievements in cheap space science, this live attenuated vaccine provides fresh cause for national pride.
India proudly exports quality doctors and nurses, the human resource of the first world’s health systems. Their presence is pervasive but with Rotavac, India can begin to make positive interventions in the nuts and bolts of the world’s health services, too. Cheap vaccines and strategies are required urgently by the world’s poor, whether in the developing world or in first world inner cities. This is a significant step forward from leveraging intellectual property law, which values the public good over private profit, to supply cheap drugs for killer diseases like HIV/AIDS. This is about building and owning fresh intellectual property that the world’s poor can afford.
But while celebrating this national achievement, let us recall that science and technology are collaborative and do not respect borders. The researchers behind Rotavac believe that they have created “team science”, an international framework for development which is as important as the vaccine itself. Thirteen institutions, including the department of biotechnology, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the US National Institutes of Health and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Stanford University, the Research Council of Norway, public health pioneer PATH and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed to the project, which was incubated by the bilateral Indo-US Vaccine Action Programme and worked by Bharat Biotech, a relatively new company with no licensed products. Such models, which pool resources and expertise and bridge the gap between costs and funding, should fire the imagination in other disciplines, information gulags where a silo mentality has retarded the creation of intellectual property.