India-made mRNA vaccine priced at ₹2,292, will be available as a booster dose

GEMCOVAC-OM, storable in ordinary refrigerators, is the only mRNA vaccine currently approved in India that has been made specifically to counter the Omicron variant

June 24, 2023 07:59 pm | Updated June 25, 2023 09:53 am IST - NEW DELHI

Union Minister Jitendra Singh and others during the launch of GEMCOVAC-OM Omicron-specific mRNA-based booster vaccine, in New Delhi on June 24, 2023.

Union Minister Jitendra Singh and others during the launch of GEMCOVAC-OM Omicron-specific mRNA-based booster vaccine, in New Delhi on June 24, 2023. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

India’s first indigenously developed mRNA vaccine against the dominant Omicron variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus will cost ₹2,292, Sanjay Singh, CEO, Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, said at a press conference on June 24. The vaccine will for now only be available as a booster or “precaution dose”, that is, somebody who has already been vaccinated thrice will be ineligible as the relevant expert committees, which recommend vaccines for public administration, have not permitted companies to administer a fourth dose in India unlike, for instance, in the United States and Europe.

This price, however, is the retail price of the vaccine and the government currently has no plans to make a bulk purchase, as it did in the case of Covishield and Covaxin in 2021, that enabled these vaccines to be available for free at government health centres. “We expect to make this vaccine available as a booster in private healthcare centres as well as export it to several international markets,” Dr. Singh added.

GEMCOVAC-OM is the only mRNA vaccine currently approved in India — again under ‘emergency use authorisation’ — that has been made specifically to counter the Omicron variant. Existing vaccines available as booster shots range from ₹800 (Innovac, Bharat Biotech’s nasal-drop vaccine), ₹225 for Covaxin, Covovax and Covishield (as of December 2022), and ₹400 for Corbevax. So far, only 28% of India’s population has taken a third or precaution dose, and slackening demand for booster doses means that not all of these vaccines are easily available at health centres, either privately owned or government-run.

Prior to a major ‘booster’ drive promoted by the Centre in April 2022, Covaxin and Covishield — the main vaccines deployed in India’s vaccination programme that has so far administered over 200 crore doses — cost ₹1,200 and ₹600, respectively, at private healthcare centres. In a statement earlier this year, Pfizer indicated that booster doses of its mRNA vaccine would likely cost $110-130, in the absence of government procurement that has so far made the vaccine available for free in the U.S.

The mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna are ‘bivalent’, meaning they contain synthetic spike proteins that are effective against the older Wuhan strain as well as the newer Omicron strains. “The WHO’s (World Health Organization) latest recommendation is very clear that a monovalent vaccine is the need of the hour and we have been able to produce that,” Dr. Singh said.

This is because it is held that the scores of mutations in the last two years in the coronavirus have rendered the oldest versions of the vaccine incapable of generating a sufficient immune response. N.K. Arora, who heads the COVID advisory group that recommends the timing and dosage of available vaccines for public use, said that current evidence did not merit the need for a fourth dose. “Hybrid immunity [from vaccination plus infection] has meant that many in India already have antibodies in response to Omicron. We have recently discussed this, and at this point, there is no immediate requirement,” he told The Hindu. He too was present at the event to launch GEMCOVAC-OM.

Dr. Singh said earlier this week that Gennova Biopharmaceuticals was equipped to make, even if a new variant different from the Omicron types were to emerge, an updated vaccine within 60-100 days. The key challenge addressed, and unique selling point, of GEMCOVAC-OM was that it was stable in a 2-8 degree Celsius range and could therefore be stored in “ordinary” refrigerators. The vaccines could be administered into the skin via a “needle free” PharmaJet system. The company said it had also perfected the technology to ensure that multiple components of the vaccine could be separately produced and integrated in different parts of the world, aiding rapid deployment if the need arose.

Developing the mRNA technology platform was “expensive” and the cost of vaccine was also influenced by prevailing market conditions and whether the Centre decided to purchase a portion of it in bulk, Rajesh Gokhale, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, said. The department funded GEMCOVAC at key stages of the vaccine development as part of the COVID Suraksha initiative.

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