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Coronavirus

Vaccine powerhouse India markets affordable COVID shots for Asia

Bangladesh, Bhutan and Qatar show interest as New Delhi looks beyond fellow nationals

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. India is arranging to inoculate 300 million of its people by August while also providing shots to nearby nations.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India, a country of 1.3 billion people, intends to mass-produce enough COVID-19 shots to help the global community fight off the pandemic.

Bangladesh, Myanmar, Qatar, Bhutan, Switzerland, Bahrain, Austria and South Korea have shown keen interest in partnering with India, which can produce vaccines more cheaply than Western makers and is working on an mRNA remedy that is said to be less sensitive to relatively warm temperatures.

After a virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina last week, a joint statement was issued saying Modi "assured that vaccines would be made available to Bangladesh as and when produced in India."

Other countries in the neighborhood are also looking to India, the world's largest vaccine producer. Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering last month commended Modi's leadership in tackling the pandemic at home during a virtual event attended by Modi. Tshering thanked his counterpart "for the assurance to make vaccines available for Bhutan once they are ready for clinical use."

India has six vaccine candidates in different stages of clinical trials, including Covaxin, its first homegrown COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, and Covishield, from Oxford University and U.K. pharmaceutical AstraZeneca, for which the Serum Institute of India is a manufacturing partner. Trials for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine have also started in partnership with Dr. Reddy's Laboratories.

AstraZeneca's Covishield is among the six vaccine candidates in India's pipeline; the Serum Institute of India is a manufacturing partner.   © Reuters

Modi, who is actively monitoring the country's vaccine development efforts, has stated that India -- which is responsible for over 60% of global vaccine production -- was ready to help the world out of the pandemic. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in late September, he said India's vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help "all humanity" fight off the crisis.

However, the pandemic at home may not immediately allow Modi's government to focus on contributing vaccines to the country's neighbors. India's total cases have exceeded 10 million, maintaining the world's second-highest number, after the U.S. It also has reported over 146,000 deaths.

While it is trying to help other countries, India is also drafting a comprehensive COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan for inoculating around 300 million of its people by August.

A backup plan might be needed to secure additional capacity so the country can produce enough doses to export. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla last month said India may go for joint production of vaccines in some countries based on their willingness. "Several countries have been approaching us for receiving vaccine supply," he said, adding that India will also help interested nations enhance their cold chain and storage capacities so they can handle the vaccines.

Vaccines like that of U.S. drugmaker Pfizer need to be kept at temperatures below -70 C, which creates a huge challenge in distributing doses in countries that are warmer than Antarctica.

Employees inspect tablets as they move along a production line at a pharmaceutical plant in the western state of Goa, India.   © Reuters

"India has mass-production [capability] which is reliable and credible," Pankaj Jha, a professor of strategic affairs at the O.P. Jindal Global University, told Nikkei Asia. "This helps reduce the cost and achieve economies of scale."

Pointing to Covaxin, he said if the candidate emerges successful after trials, India can send it to the world.

"India," Jha noted, "has said it will be reaching out to its neighbors first in South Asia, which is fair enough, but since it can mass-produce, it [is also expected] to help Africa, where it has been sending medicines [for a long time]. This vaccine diplomacy will be a big boost to India's outreach as a production hub of [COVID-19 vaccines and other medicines]."

Jha added that the country can produce vaccines that are cheaper than those being made in the West and can be maintained in tropical conditions.

Meanwhile, HGCO 19, India's first indigenous mRNA vaccine candidate, is the latest to receive approval from the country's drug regulator to enter human clinical trials. The vaccine has been developed by Pune-based Gennova, which is being supported by the government's Department of Biotechnology.

Usually, mRNA vaccines require ultracold storage, but the Indian candidate would be much easier to maintain.

"The important part," V.K. Paul, a top government health adviser, said, "is that unlike Pfizer's vaccine or some others, this vaccine, if it comes into existence, will be maintainable at normal cold chain conditions in a normal [refrigerator at 2 to 8 C]."

An employee displays the temperature of a package inside a cold storage facility at a DHL distribution center in Gurugram, India. An Indian mRNA vaccine candidate must be kept at relatively warm temperatures, between 2 and 8 C.   © Reuters

Paul also spoke of the six vaccines currently in the human trial stage in India. "We see a good pipeline," he said. "This is an important development."

In addition, he pointed out that the Serum Institute, Pfizer and Bharat Biotech have applied to the Indian drug regulator for emergency use authorization for their vaccines.

"India will play a vital role [in ensuring vaccine availability] to low-income and middle-income countries," Ghanshyam Pangtey, a professor at the department of medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi, told Nikkei. "Many of these [nations] are expected to be dependent on India [to fulfill their vaccine requirements] in the near future."

India also intends to bolster its cold chains so that it is able to store vaccines at any required temperature. Luxembourg-based B Medical Systems, a global supplier of medical-grade refrigerators, freezers and transport boxes, is looking to build a factory in India with the government's support.

"Our solutions can store basically anything from minus 80 C to plus 25 C," Deputy CEO Jesal Doshi told Nikkei. Doshi said plans are for a plant in India, B Medical's first outside Luxembourg, which would be operational by March.

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