A contagion that has submerged the entire world into a whirlpool of violent suffering and death, Covid-19 has mercilessly revealed the fragility of human life, where keeping oneself alive is all that is left of life today.
Tracking, tracing, isolating, and socially responsible behavior are the only ways to combat the pandemic. Yet the highly contagious nature of the virus, a bane to the afflicted, is proving to be a boon to researchers. Clinical trials of vaccines are on the world over, India being a prominent player in this. The vaccine could well be available shortly, saving lives, livelihoods, and reiterating humanity’s faith in a return to a normal world.
None would have imagined that human civilization could be brought down to its knees by a tiny, invisible creature. Schools have been closed, travel plans have been shattered, and entire countries have been locked down for months on end. Children are glued to computers for online classes and office employees work from home. We are now acclimatized to an imprisoned lifestyle!
In the midst of this chaos, migrant labour and those living on meagre incomes, couldn’t cope with the changing times. Thus began a massive urban-rural exodus, making millions of people vulnerable to the virus. The life of every person on this planet has changed decisively. Disease and calamity are not new to humanity. But the corona virus is like none other in its highly infectious, rapid spread, and its resistance to yield to any combination of drugs.
Easy global connectivity helped the tiny bug to reach every corner of the world in a short while and create havoc in the lives of the most intelligent species on this planet.
The viral pneumonia outbreak which began in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, in December 2019, soon became a global pandemic with 11 million positive cases, and 0.5 million deaths as of July 5, 2020. It was identified as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) which causes the corona virus disease-2019 (COVID-19).
Currently, there are no vaccines in the market. Detection and isolation is the main approach adopted by many countries to control the outbreak, till such time as a vaccine or better therapeutic treatment is developed.
This is a highly challenging scenario in densely populated cities in India and other developing countries. For instance, Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, spans around 500 acres and has a population density of more than ten times the rest of the City. Dharavi is one of the biggest informal urban settlements in the world with an estimated one million people living in this small, confined zone. The prevailing pandemic in such densely populated zones could create havoc as the disease spreads further with the increasing infection rates.
An effective vaccine is the only solution to control the devastating pandemic.
Developing a vaccine is a tedious and multi-year procedure, with the product having to go through several safety tests to comply with regulations. Presently, the average time needed for creating traditional vaccines is over ten years. Scientists need to race against time to break this time barrier to provide some relief during these desperate times.
Today, an average person in a developing country receives around eight vaccines, while his/her counterpart in an industrialized country receives twelve. It is a common practice in developed countries to vaccinate for seasonal flu, which is not common in developing countries. Even during the swine flu outbreak in 2010, many poor nations did not have access to H1N1 vaccines.
Accessibility of vaccine for people across borders is critical to fight Covid-19.
Scientists are working on multiple platforms to develop a vaccine at the earliest. These include vaccines made up of DNA, RNA, recombinant vector, subunit, live attenuated and inactivated virus forms. As of June 29, 2020, there were seventeen candidate vaccines under clinical evaluation and 132 vaccines in preclinical evaluation stage (WHO, 2020).
In addition, there are several candidate vaccines in developmental stage. University of Oxford/Astrazeneca, CanSino Biological Inc., Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, Moderna/NIAID, Sinovac and Novavax are leading the race with phase 2 and phase 3 trials. Production of plant-based vaccine is currently on at Medicago Inc.
The race for a vaccine is intensifying and rich countries are investing heavily on developing it. This poses serious questions about the timely availability of the vaccine for protecting the lives of people in poor economies.
The costs involved in developing and testing vaccines is huge. It is impossible to cover such costs without having intellectual property rights. Several patents have already been filed which provides twenty years of exclusive rights of production and sale of the products for the inventors.
However, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca have pledged to make the vaccine available at no profit during the pandemic. WHO has advocated surrender of intellectual property rights so that pharmaceuticals can make data and technical knowledge available free.
Bharath Biotech, a leading vaccine maker in India, has developed Covaxin, India’s first vaccine candidate for Covid-19. The work is a result of collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV). The Drug Controller General of India and the union ministry of health & family welfare have approved Phase I & II human clinical trials.
India is a global leader in the supply of various pharmaceutical products including vaccines. It is the largest producer of vaccines in the world, with a capacity of three billion doses per annum for domestic use and for export.
Affordability of any health intervention is crucial considering the economic status of developing countries. In the race for a solution to the pandemic, India will play a major role in handling this enormous public health challenge.