As the COVID-19 case count in India increased to over 90 lakh on Thursday, Pune-based Serum Institute of India’s CEO and owner Adar Poonawalla said the country could expect a vaccine against the novel coronavirus by the end of the year or early next year.

Speaking at the HT Leadership Summit 2020, Poonawalla said initial doses will be administered to those who are more vulnerable to the disease, including frontline workers, health officials and the elderly, others would get inoculated by March or April 2021. However, he said this would be possible only if everything goes as planned and the timelines are not delayed due to unprecedented incidents.

“Never did I dream that we at the Serum Institute of India (SII) would have a good vaccine developed by this year-end with all regulatory approvals in place. If everything goes according to plan, January-February 2021 is our deadline for making the vaccine available to frontline workers and to the general public by March, April next year,” the Hindustan Times quoted him as saying.

SII has partnered with AstraZeneca to produce at least one billion doses of the vaccine.

“As soon as the UK authorities, the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) and EMA (European Medicines Agency) approve it for emergency use, we will apply to the DCGI (Drugs Controller General of India)

and get emergency use authorisation in India,” he added.

Reiterating his earlier stance, Poonawalla said 50% of the vaccine produced by his company will be allocated for inoculation drives in India and that the SII will try to make the vaccine affordable for all at an initial price range of Rs 500 to Rs 600.

He also indicated that the world’s largest vaccine maker is aiming to produce 100 million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 shot by February 2021 and to expedite the process they might add two more manufacturing facilities to the current production capacity.

“It will probably take two or three years for every Indian to get inoculated, not just because of the supply constraints but because you need the budget, the vaccine, logistics, infrastructure and then, people should be willing to take the vaccine. So these are the factors that lead up to being able to vaccinate 80%-90% of the population. It will be 2024 for everybody, if willing to take a two-dose vaccine, to be vaccinated,”Poonawalla said.

Asked at what price the public will get it, Poonawala said it will be around $5-$6 per dose with an MRP of around Rs 1,000 for the two necessary doses. “The government of India will be getting it at a far cheaper price at around $3-$4 because it will be buying in a large volume and get access to the price that is similar to what COVAX has got. We are still pricing it far cheaper and more affordable than other vaccines we have in the market today,” he said.

Asked about the efficacy of the vaccine, he said the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine is so far proving to work very well even in elderly people, which was a concern earlier. “It has induced a good T-cell response, which is an indicator for your long-term immunity and antibody response but then again, time will only tell if these vaccines are going to protect you in the long term. Nobody can answer that for any of the vaccines today,” Poonawalla said.

Responding to a question on the safety aspect, he said there have been no major complaints, reactions or adverse events, adding, “We would need to wait and see. The efficacy and immunogenicity results from the Indian trials will come out in about a month-and-a half.”

Children would have to wait a little longer till the safety data is out, but the good news is that COVID-19 is not so bad and serious for them, Poonawalla said. “Unlike measles pneumonia, which is deadly, this disease is seeming to be less of a nuisance for children but then, they can be carriers and can give the infection to others. We want to vaccinate the elderly people and others who are the most vulnerable first. Once we have enough safety data to go in on children, we can recommend it for children too,” he said.

Poonawalla said the Oxford vaccine is affordable, safe and stored at a temperature of two to eight degrees Celsius, which is an ideal temperature for it to be stored in the cold storages of India. He said the SII plans to make about 10 crore doses per month from February. As regards how many doses would be provided to India, Poonawalla said talks are still going on and no agreement has been arrived at in this regard.

“India wants around 400 million doses by July. I do not know if it will take all from the Serum Institute. We are gearing up to offer that kind of volume to India and still have a few 100 million to offer to COVAX by July and August. No agreement so far,” he said. Poonawala said the SII is not entering into any agreement with other countries at this moment as India is its priority.

“We have not signed and committed anything else beyond Bangladesh at the moment. We really do not want to partner right now with many countries because we will not have enough stocks to deliver. We want to handle India as a priority first and manage Africa at the same time and then help out other countries,” he said.

Poonawalla said 30-40 crore doses of the Oxford vaccine will be available by the first quarter of 2021. In another session of the summit, AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria said there is some talk going on between Pfizer and the Indian government but not much with Moderna.

(With inputs from PTI)

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