India's biotech moment: A made-in-India Zika virus vaccine

World Sunday 07/February/2016 17:04 PM
By: Times News Service
India's biotech moment: A made-in-India Zika virus vaccine

New Delhi:The irony is complete, India has no reported cases of the dreaded Zika virus infection, but is the first country in the world to have ready for testing not one but two vaccines against the virus that is causing nightmares in The Americas.
Whether the Zika breakthrough from India becomes a full-fledged vaccine or not will be known later, but for the first time an Indian company has been nimble, fast and foresighted to beat the western pharma giants on their own game.
One will have to wait and watch to see how the patent battle is fought, on this occasion the dice is already loaded in India's favour.
This huge globally significant 'Zika biotech moment for India' could not have come at a more opportune time, the country is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the setting up of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) which started in 1986, under the leadership of the tech savvy late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The then land of snake charmers, elephants, and the 'Hindu rate of growth' has now transformed into innovation hub with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi another tech-savvy, science loving leader who has given the big challenge of 'Make in India' and 'Start-up India'. The Zika virus vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech International Limited, Hyderabad goes well beyond the prime minister's catchy slogans as it is truly a 'made in India' by Indians moment and the patent on the product is also Indian.
The unbelievable story of the Zika virus vaccine breakthrough actually begins in 1996 with the remarkable tale of a middle class Tamilian farmer's son who trained to be a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in USA deciding to come back to India.
Krishna Ella, now the chairman-cum-managing director of Bharat Biotech was then egged by his mother to return to his motherland from USA.
Ella recalls his mother saying, "Son, you only have a 9-inch stomach and how much ever money you make, you can't eat more than that.
You come back and do whenever you want, I will see to it that you get food! As long as I am alive, you will not starve."
Then 'start-ups' were not sexy, yet Ella took the risks and today he commands a $100 million company that specialises in vaccine production.
Having mastered the making of the world's cheapest hepatitis-B vaccine and the bulk supply of the oral polio vaccine of which Ella says he has supplied 3.5 billion doses among several other vaccines.
Ella's company also partnered with Indian government to make the first-ever Indian-made vaccine called 'Rotavac', a vaccine against an infectious diarrhoea disease caused by Rota virus that afflicts children.
Ella being a scientist himself invests a lot in research and development and that is probably what led him start work developing vaccines against Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and Chikungunya both viral diseases that are mosquito borne.
Yet many believe the DBT has not lived up to its expectation in recent times since the most urgently-needed National Biotech Regulatory Authority India Bill has been pending with the Parliament almost shackling the sector to a huge slow down.
The one big success from the DBT was the piloting of the introduction of the genetically-modified variety of cotton called Bt Cotton more than a decade ago, the first and only GM plant India has embraced.
The country then dithered when it debated the introduction of Bt Brinjal but then taking a moral high ground placed a 'moratorium' on its introduction.
Today the government technocracy of the biotech sector is unable to take a decision whether Indian farmers should be given an opportunity to grow GM Mustard, even as the country spends scarce foreign exchange importing edible oils.
The Indian biotech sector is today worth about $7 billion and according to the National Biotechnology Development Strategy unveiled a few weeks ago, the target is to make it into a $100 billion industry by 2025.
However, for that to happen relevant legislations need to be passed post haste.
In addition, what needs to be ensured is that executive powers come back to rest with the executive.
India may be the only country in the whole world where the Supreme Court has been deliberating for several years on whether genetically modified crops are good or bad for the country.
It is for governments to decide on such important national policies, not judges of the apex court howsoever learned they may be.
Ultimately, trust has to be rested with experts by putting in place an impartial and transparent regulatory system.
The real test of the government on whether it truly supports the Indian biotech sector would become tangible if it understands the huge first mover advantage that Bharat Biotech has given to India through its foresight and disease forecasting ability to position a Zika virus vaccine well ahead of others.
As Union Science Minister Harsh Vardhan is fond of saying 'IT' meant 'India Today' and on the same lines 'BT' means 'Bharat Tomorrow' and for that to happen the ball is really in Prime Minister Modi's court who can use his good offices to push for early assessment of the Indian Zikavac vaccines.
Ella requests that Modi himself intervene by supporting a project which embodies all of what Modi stands for 'Make in India; Start-up India; healthy India', he believes the visionary prime minister that Modi is, could use the first mover advantage that Bharat Biotech has given to India for what he describes 'vaccine diplomacy'.
Ella suggests that if Modi, who is known for his out-of-box foreign policy initiatives, can now win lots of diplomatic Brownie points by transferring the technology to a friendly country like Brazil which is reeling under the impact of the Zika epidemic.
Since as they say 'a friend in need is friend indeed' and today both South and North America could hugely benefit by India's large hearted magnanimity to mitigate a global health care emergency.