PUNE (Reuters) – If the world is to have access to a vaccine against COVID-19, there is a good chance it will get through the doors of the Serum Institute of India.
FILE PHOTO: Men ride a motorcycle past a supply vehicle of the Indian Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, which is working on a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine on May 18, 2020 in Pune, India. REUTERS / Euan Rocha
The Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, is working on several candidates for the novel coronavirus – including the potential mass production of the AstraZeneca / Oxford University that has made headlines worldwide – and is developing its own.
The efforts are led in part by Umesh Shaligram, the head of research and development. His employer is a private company, but every day, just before midnight, he receives a WhatsApp message from the government asking for updates and new hurdles.
The message is usually from K. VijayRaghavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s best scientific advisor – an indication of the critical and even strategically important nature of the race for vaccine development that the world is waiting for.
Shaligram immediately replies with a progress report and explains any bottlenecks.
“Delays, just tell them,” said Shaligram, adding that the government has done everything it can to speed up the release process and address import delays and other issues.
“We started getting approvals for trials and the like in days, even on a Sunday evening,” he said, noting that some of these processes typically took 4 to 6 months to complete.
While most of the vaccine attention is usually directed to the pharmaceutical developer, India tacitly plays a key role in the production of 60 to 70% of all vaccines sold worldwide, with the Serum Institute playing a leading role, the managing director said Corporate, Adar Poonawalla.
Shaligram and his team are working at full speed on the company’s extensive 150 hectare campus in the west Indian city of Pune. Every day dozens of buses with hundreds of workers drive to the busy area, even if the city around them is largely closed.
The boost comes as the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to grow both globally and domestically, and world leaders see vaccines as the only real way to get their stalled economies back on track, although none yet effective against the coronavirus that has been proven.
Poonawalla, whose family belongs to the vaccine maker, said scientists, drug makers and manufacturers have worked together to accelerate development and availability.
“We are all in a race to fight the disease, there is no one-off work here,” he said to Reuters, who was sitting in his office next to his family’s 74-year-old stud.
Serum was founded in 1966 by Adar’s father Cyrus Poonawalla and has partnered with Codagenix, its US biotech company, its US rival Novavax (NVAX.O) and Austria’s Themis to potentially produce three COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are still under development.
Another candidate in progress is the experimental vaccine, developed by a team at Oxford University and now licensed to the drug company AstraZeneca (AZN.L) with whom Serum is in talks about the mass production of the vaccine, which is currently in the clinical trial phase.
The United States has secured nearly a third of its first planned 1 billion doses for the potential vaccine, originally known as ChAdOx1 and now known as AZD1222, by pledging up to $ 1.2 billion.
Poonawalla plans to start producing 4 to 5 million cans per month in June and then gradually increase to 350 to 400 million cans per year.
“Hopefully, from October to November, we will build up a few million doses to give to our country and other high-risk areas around the world when the trials are finished,” said the 39-year-old while giving Reuters less access to visit its facilities.
He added that the development team had informed him that the studies had an 80% chance of success because the vaccine was based on a proven platform.
Based on the information currently available, Poonawalla also said he expected AZD1222 to be a single-dose vaccine and would not require a booster dose.
He sees that AZD1222 in India may be priced around 1,000 rupees ($ 13) per dose, but expects it to be obtained and distributed free of charge by governments.
Serum is also working on developing its own vaccination options to fight the disease, said Poonawalla.
VIALS, TUBES, CHEMICALS
Even if a vaccine is successful, treatment to fight COVID-19 would still be needed, Poonawalla said, noting that some people may not get the desired immune response even if they are vaccinated.
“You can get mild symptoms, you can get severe symptoms. It depends on your system, but there is a chance, ”he added. “Not all vaccines are fully effective.”
The Serum Institute produces more than 1.5 billion doses of vaccines every year, from polio to measles.
According to Poonawalla, this has given the company an advantage in securing the supply of vials and high-quality chemicals necessary for the manufacture of a vaccine in bulk once all approvals have been obtained.
“We partnered with many of our suppliers to stock up on glass vials and cane glass in advance for a year or two. Fortunately for us, this is not a problem.”
A successful vaccine will initially be in short supply, he emphasized.
India recorded more than 6,000 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, totaling over 118,000 cases with more than 3,500 deaths, as it begins to ease its nearly two-month nationwide ban.
Over 5 million infections and over 330,000 deaths have been reported worldwide.
The Indian government is ready to cover the cost of vaccine trials in the country, Poonawalla said, adding that the government has also expressed interest in pre-ordering a possible vaccine.
“We tried and they were very positive,” he added. “But we said wait … because we don’t want to take government money until we’re very confident that we can deliver.”
UNLOCK VALUE IN “HYPE”
Serum, one of the few companies hiring more and more people during the health crisis, is currently designing a separate pandemic disease vaccine manufacturing facility that will treat 90% of currently developed vaccine candidates through COVID-19 candidates go out.
This facility, which will be completed in the next two to three years, could potentially produce 700 to 800 million cans a year, according to Poonawalla.
The CEO said he was considering going public a few years ago to fund some major acquisitions, but changed course when the deals failed.
Now he’s considering a different approach. He is considering the creation of a holding company that will house the company’s pandemic technologies, including manufacturing rights, intellectual property and the sale of all Serum COVID-19 candidates, as well as the sale of a minority stake in the company.
“This will unlock the value of the main hype,” he said.
Poonawalla said he had hired bankers to test the water, but stressed that he would only consider selling a stake in ethical, long-term funds or sovereign wealth funds that don’t expect big returns and “want to make a difference to the world.” .
“After getting them on board, I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to charge high prices to offer them a return.”
Reporting by Abhirup Roy and Euan Rocha; Editing of Pravin Char