NEW DELHI -More than half a dozen companies and research institutes in India have joined the international race to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus as it continues to wreak havoc across the world, causing at least 234,143 deaths to date.
Some are in international tie-ups, while others are developing it on their own.
Bharat Biotech is working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and fellow vaccine firm FluGen of the United States to develop a nasal vaccine for Covid-19 called CoroFlu.
The three were already in a partnership to develop an influenza vaccine, which is currently in phase 2 of clinical trials, and is the base for the coronavirus vaccine as well.
Dr Krishna Ella, chairman and managing director of Bharat Biotech International Limited, said: "Little did we know that this influenza vaccine candidate would become very useful as a 'backbone' in developing CoroFlu, which is a vaccine candidate that hopefully will be effective against both Covid-19 and influenza."
He said the university will conclude animal trials in the next four to six months and his firm, which has the capacity to produce 300 million doses a year, will start human trials to get CoroFlu ready by the fall of 2020 or early 2021.
"Thereafter, its efforts will be to gain regulatory approvals, the licence to mass-produce multi-doses of this vaccine, marketing and supplying of the vaccine across the globe," said Dr Ella.
The firm aims to make the vaccine "easily accessible and affordable for even low-resource income countries", he added.
One Indian biotechnology company that is even further along is Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine maker by number of doses - 1.5 billion a year - produced and sold globally. It has already started producing a vaccine even as human trials are still on at Britain's Oxford University.
The Serum Institute is looking at manufacturing 60 million doses and has indicated pricing as low as 1,000 rupees (S$18.80).
Experts said India's strength in these efforts is the capability to scale up production quickly and at a low cost.
"They have the capacity to produce large amounts. There are other groups (in other countries developing vaccines) but India has the tremendous capacity for ramping up vaccine manufacturing," said Dr K. Srinath Reddy, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) president and a member of the Indian Council of Medical Research Covid-19 task force.
India can expect to benefit even if it is unable to develop a vaccine ahead of others.
Dr Reddy said: "If the vaccine is available (from another part of the world) and shared globally, we should be able to put all our resources to a larger manufacturing scale."
India is the world's third-largest producer of drugs with the pharmaceuticals industry worth around US$38 billion (S$53 billion) a year.
It is a global supplier of medicines for a variety of diseases and is known for producing high-quality and low-cost medicines. It fulfils 50 per cent to 60 per cent of global demand for many vaccines, 40 per cent of generic medicines consumed in the US and 25 per cent of all the medicines dispensed in Britain, according to a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Other Indian firms working on a vaccine include Biological E, Indian Immunologicals and Mynvax, which are developing a vaccine each, while Zydus Cadila is developing two vaccines.
Mr Pankaj R. Patel, chairman of pharma firm Zydus Cadila, said: "India has the capabilities to discover, develop and produce the vaccine in large quantities."
His firm is working on two vaccines, including a DNA vaccine that targets the viral membrane protein that is responsible for the cell entry of the coronavirus.
"This vaccine is in the animal testing stage and if the results are successful it will go into clinical trials in the second quarter of this financial year," said Mr Patel. The company is also exploring the use of a biologic drug Interferon alfa-2b to treat Covid-19.
Research institutes in India are also working towards finding a cure.
Dr Raghavan Varadarajan of Indian Institute of Science, a research university for higher education, started working on a vaccine in early February with four students and two scientists at Mynvax, a start-up founded by him and another colleague. The vaccine has entered animal testing.
With India coming to the end of a lockdown on Sunday (May 3), he expects access to materials to improve, speeding up the vaccine's development.
"Getting reagents (synthetic genes for our designs) as well as oligonucleotides and other reagents has been challenging as is sending material to our collaborators. We hope the situation will ease in the coming weeks," he said.