With at least eight cases of the monkeypox virus reported out of India, a task force of the experts constituted by the Centre has laid out plans to fund research in developing the critical infrastructure needed for preparing an indigenous vaccine. Developing a dedicated vaccine, experts told The Hindu, would take well over a year because there were several gaps in figuring out what vaccine approach would be ideal.
Though the World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak as a public health emergency, experts at a meeting reckoned that monkeypox was unlikely to immediately require mass vaccination, said a senior government official, familiar with proceedings, but who declined to be identified “The monkeypox virus is structurally more stable compared to SARS-CoV2. However, we don’t know if the existing smallpox vaccines will be suitable against monkeypox and so the first steps we have decided to take is preparing the infrastructure required for vaccine development.”
At least one major vaccine development company in India is in talks with a foreign company to manufacture the smallpox vaccine in India, this person told The Hindu. Danish biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, has developed a smallpox vaccine, called JYNNEOS, that has been tested for safety in people and effectiveness against monkeypox in the laboratory, that has been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Nearly 3,00,000 doses of the vaccine have been manufactured, and the company on August 3 said it had firmed a deal with a “manufacturer in an undisclosed APAC (Asia Pacific) country” for the supply of 3,50,000 doses of its non-replicating vaccine that would be delivered in 2023.
The Department of Biotechnology, via the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, will soon be issuing a call for funding research into determining the types of vaccine that could best work for monkeypox, what assays (tests) could work well to determine concentrations of the virus. “All of the approaches used in developing COVID vaccines — mRNA, protein sub-unit – can theoretically be applied to developing a monkeypox vaccine too. So the immediate plan is to have a infrastructure ready. However, whether a company will actually go ahead and make one is commercial call and given that we have only few cases in India, I’m not sure many companies may find it commercially viable yet,” the same person added.
Epidemiologist and public health expert Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, told The Hindu that India being a vaccine manufacturer should immediately focus on a roadmap towards developing a vaccine, as depending on the smallpox vaccine alone would be unwise. In the case of SARS-CoV2, the genome of the virus was rapidly analysed and deciphered from which scientists figured out the central role played by the spike protein in infecting healthy lung cells. This served as the basis for subsequent vaccines, though they employed various approaches. “This level of specific knowledge isn’t yet available for a potential monkeypox vaccine. The old smallpox vaccines had a risk profile that wouldn’t be acceptable by modern standards. A killed-virus is the easiest approach because the steps are known though we don’t yet know how effective this would be for monkeypox.”
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology Pune reported last week of having isolated the virus strain from samples of people confirmed with the infection in India; there have been four confirmed cases of monkeypox in India so far. Officials said the genomic sequence of the Indian strain has a 99.85% match with the West African strain circulating globally. The ICMR has invited tenders from local companies to develop a vaccine. The Pune-based Serum Institute of India, and makers of Covishield, also said it was in talks with international partners regarding a potential vaccine but that it would take time.