NEW DELHI: In the very first interaction hours ahead of WHO permission to issue international certification, Dr Krishna Ella of Bharat Biotech shares with The New Indian his plans for the launch of nasal vaccine, his disappointment with false news over Covaxin and global politics of over homegrown vaccine.
Rohan Dua: Despite creating an indigenous vaccine, you put up with fierce opposition from several quarters over pricing; battled fake news over the use of calf serum; became the target of an agenda attack… Did it hit the morale of R&D of Covaxin?
Dr Ella: It did and really hard at that. These reactions, in general, not only affect us (my colleagues and scientists), but affect the various startups in the country as well. How do you survive in a country like this? Should we continue to work for the country or should we go somewhere more congenial? My friends with their own startups even asked me how I was withstanding so much pressure. And that did the thought occur to me that I should just go back to the US? However, I have been very positive. I have great faith in the system. I told them not to worry and that the future is good. But when I take into account the kind of negativity that surrounds, I wonder whether it is me that they wish to hurt or the political system. I just wish to make it clear. I don’t belong to any political party here. I work for Bharat, my country. Pull me up if I err in science, but do not drag me into unnecessary issues. That is not appropriate. Politics and science should be kept separate. I’m a scientist not a member of any political association. I’m working for public health, irrespective of the government. People should understand that and help me to succeed.
Rohan Dua: In fact, after completing the 100 crore vaccinations mark, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the vaccine industry stalwarts, including you, to boost their morale. What benchmarks did he set up for the stakeholders? Did he share a new roadmap for India from here onwards?
Dr Ella: PM wants India to be the vaccine hub for the world. He asked us to focus on innovation, take it to the world and bring laurels to the country. The world must acknowledge us for our innovation and good quality of vaccine supply to the world. That is the only clear agenda.
For a startup, what could be a bigger privilege than to have the prime minister himself take our vaccine? His action stood as a testimony for the vaccination programme and his philosophy stood out. It sent out a clear message that here’s a leader who believes in a startup company from his country. This serves as an inspiration for us and reinforces the idea of atma nirbhar Bharat, one that we all believe in. It serves as an example for other startups as well.
Rohan Dua: The announcement of the nasal vaccine being produced by Bharat Biotech as a maker comes to us as a great piece of news. How different would this nasal vaccine be from the other vaccines? How would it help control the transmission of Covid-19 infection?
Dr Ella: You are the first web TV channel that I am sharing this piece of news with. We would have rolled out a Nasal vaccine by now. It is just that we were working on a new immunology that took us almost five-six months to figure out. The kind of leadership we have at the moment makes us confident that we can take lead in this direction.
The Nasal vaccine that we have evolved is showing phenomenal results. This vaccine is extremely critical for us if we wish to remove the mask. We are almost done with phase two trials and are looking at the innovative phase three trials with the government. Once that happens, it would be a global game changer. If all goes well, it should hit the market by late January-early February. The good part is that it would be much easier to produce and the volume can be increased. The price, however, is yet to be arrived at.
Rohan Dua: Some epidemiologists across the world see a third wave coming, with some cases resurfacing in China. If yes, do you think it will be less or more evil than the previous two waves?
Dr Ella: To be candid, we feared a rise in cases in Maharashtra post Ganesh Chaturthi last month. Thankfully, that did not happen. Likewise, we feared a rise in the cases in the north post Dussehra. Mercifully not many incidents were seen. The critical factor now is Diwali. If that passes safely, we could be past the worst. I request every citizen to not go lax and be cautious, especially since the children could also be carrying the virus.
Rohan Dua: Since you mentioned children, how soon can we expect a vaccination for children between the age group of two to 18 to hit the market?
Dr Ella: Bharat Biotech would perhaps be the first company to launch a vaccine for children, aged two to 18. When I say that, I must share that we have put in extensive research to ensure that this vaccine is safe for children. The vaccine has been cleared by the expert committee after strict review and now we are waiting for the controller to issue the license.
The big debate here is whether children should be administered the vaccine in the first place. I’m a virologist and in that capacity I feel that it is imperative that we immunize our children. As mankind, we are yet to figure out the long term impact of Covid. Let us assume, someone (especially children) gets impacted two or three times in their lifetime, it is bound to affect the lung capacity of that individual. It may result in asthmatic problems or bronchial issues. The extent may not be clear. The intent, therefore, is to check the impact, so the quality of life is better.
Rohan Dua: How excited or nervous are you for approval from WHO and UN?
Dr Ella: Five actions have already been approved by WHO as pre qualification. So we are well prepared. It is the half baked information and people shooting off their mouths without proper evidence that irk me the most. The other day, someone wrote inactivated vaccine by Bharat Biotech cannot be approved. Let me share, Tyronn Berry’s rabies vaccine, also an inactivated vaccine, is approved by WHO pre qualification. Such stories only spread misinformation and demoralize us.
For a life saving drug to a vaccine for travel, see how much the world focus/priority has changed. We respect that. But, we certainly don’t expect national or global politics over this. On the issue of travel, there many countries that are not insisting on vaccination. For instance, US is just asking for an non covid RT PCR report. Even UK wants you to produce an RT PCR report plus it wants proof of vaccination. By argument is why do you need an RT PCR report if you are vaccinated. This is a war of politics.