WHO chief scientist lauds India’s massive vaccination drive

Vaccine availability not an issue, inability of many countries to mount such a response a challenge: Soumya Swaminathan

February 24, 2022 09:22 pm | Updated February 25, 2022 01:08 am IST - HYDERABAD

Lauding India’s massive vaccination drive, World Health Organisation (WHO) chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan on Thursday said that many countries are unable to mount such a response.

Dr. Swaminathan, who was responding to a query in a panel discussion at BioAsia 2022 on issues the Covax initiative faced on supply front initially, said that the phase of acute shortage witnessed in 2021 is behind and “we now have enough visibility to satisfy everybody’s demand.”

The challenge is going to be for many countries who are not able to mount the kind of massive vaccination programmes that India has successfully been able to. With lot of support needed on the ground in terms of technical help, management of workforce, funding and logistic support, Covax will be working to help the countries scale up targets to 70% of population, she said.

She added that WHO is working on scenarios where “we might need variant proof and broadly acting vaccines and inhaled vaccines that Bharat Biotech and a couple of other companies are working on.”

In future, the requirement would be for a distributed manufacturing network based on the mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa. “We are now initiating various spokes. Many companies are working on second generation mRNA technologies. No region [ought to be] dependent completely on other countries for imports of vaccines or other health products,” she said. With all the investments in vaccine technology, India should also take elimination of tuberculosis as a challenge and develop new generation vaccines for TB and test them at scale and be a leader.

Renowned virologist Gagandeep Kang moderated the session.

Bharat Biotech founder Krishna Ella, on the company’s plans for TB vaccines, said it will be announcing next week a partnership for a phase 3 trial. On Covaxin, he said that in the initial phase, the regulatory aspects delayed “a bit” work on the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the company.

Vaccine equity was another aspect highlighted by the speakers. While Dr. Swaminathan said some countries did not conform to a WHO framework for equitable access and instead tried to look after themselves thus resulting in over 70% of people in high income countries vaccinated as against less than 10% in African countries. “The science was amazing but the solidarity was lacking,” she said.

EU chief scientific advisor Epidemics Peter Piot said, “We have seen procurements that have exceeded far the needs of certain countries.” 

On whether COVID vaccines have increased dependence of the manufacturers on a single product, Biological E. managing director Mahima Datla said, “We feel reassured that there are enough vaccines to share. Over supply may be true for only some countries.” 

NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant said that structural reforms in clinical trials and regulatory processes were initiated to accelerate vaccine development. “We might have to be far more radical in a crisis by streamlining processes through digitisation and transparency in the application approval process. Government also needs to incentivise research in Biopharma to help India’s transition from a low-volume, high value player to a high volume, high value player.”

Secretary to Centre’s Department of Biotechnology Rajesh S Gokhale said bio-security was as relevant and important as other security aspects.

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