About 30 groups in India, including big industry, start-ups and academia, are working on COVID-19 vaccine development and about 20 of them are keeping a good pace, said two top government officials.
Dr VK Paul, Chairman of Empowered Group I and Member (Health) of NITI Aayog, and Professor K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, said at a press conference in Delhi on Thursday that the Indian industry is working on at least 8 candidate vaccines. "Out of these, 4 are relatively ahead. Our national science laboratories are working on 6 candidate vaccines, out of which we are very hopeful about 2-3," said Dr Paul.
India is developing three types of COVID-19 vaccines - fully indigenous, collaboration with foreign players where we are leading, and collaborations where others are leading the development. Vaccines normally takes 10-15 years to develop, and costs $200-300 million. Global efforts are to do this in one year. Hence, it requires parallel processing and instead of working on one COVID-19 vaccine, the world is working on 100 vaccines at the same time. "Simultaneously, we have to speed up regulatory processes without compromising on safety, expand manufacturing capacity and build distribution systems. So, instead of $200-300 million, it will cost $2-3 billion," said Dr Paul.
When a vaccine is finally developed, it cannot be made available for everyone immediately. Logistics of making COVID-19 vaccine accessible to everyone will be a big challenge. There is no meaning in saying who will come up first or second with a vacccine, and there is enough room even for those going slow and steady about it, said the officials.
In drug discovery, India is adopting the strategy of re-purposing existing drugs and designing new drugs. Designing COVID-19 therapies from scratch, like vaccine development, takes a very long time. Besides other approaches, CSIR and AICTE have embarked on a very high-end drug discovery hackathon. Students are trained and oriented about the drug discovery process, and are given access to computational tools. The ones which fit are identified and will be taken forward by CSIR and other organisations. "While the probability of individual success is low, when tried on a very large scale, the hope is that we have enough chance for some of them to be winners," said VijayRaghavan.
He said a new kind of COVID-19 test is likely to come up, which will test for presence of virus particle. This is not yet available, as India and the world are trying to make it. About 20 companies have provided COVID-19 diagnostic kits to the nation. By July 2020, India will be able to produce 5 lakh testing kits per day indigenously, and after meeting domestic requirement, will start exports.