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How ICMR Chief Played a Crucial Role in Developing Covishield, Covaxin

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) chief Balram Bhargava has played a crucial role in offering novel coronavirus to Bharat Biotech to develop Covaxin and connecting Serum Institute of India with the University of Oxford to manufacture Covishield, former scientist of top medical research body Dr Raman Gangakhedkar told in an exclusive interview.

Dr Gangakhedkar, who was the face of ICMR during the Covid-19 briefings last year, recalled how the country’s apex medical research institute was desperately looking for options when it detected the first case of novel coronavirus on January 30.

“In terms of the vaccine scenario, most of the developed countries had already developed the vaccine platforms because they were working on HIV or Ebola. In India, those platforms were not ready because we never felt the need and also because ART (antiretroviral therapy) came into picture,” he said in a live interview.

“We have to understand that the manufacturing capacity of any new technology could have been insufficient for us as one sixth of the world’s population lives in India.

“What do you do in those circumstances? You move to a well-established technology in which our manufacturing base is strong and that’s why we tried supporting and sharing the virus with Bharat Biotech,” he added.

India’s first case of novel coronavirus was confirmed on January 30 last year, he said, while adding that “coronavirus cell cultures were not easy and took two months which was so frustrating. Today, you may not feel but such cultures are very difficult that ICMR did.”

“The day the report came positive, we picked up the phone and called Bharat Biotech saying that we are willing to share the virus. But we have to have a vision, which Dr Balram Bhargava (Director General of ICMR) has.”

He further said Dr Bhargava had learnt that Oxford was developing adenovirus based vaccine.

Dr. Gangakhedkar, who is an epidemiologist, said, “He (Dr. Bhargava) made a phone call to Andrew Hill (Director of the Jenner Institute, University of Oxford) and brought together the Serum Institute of India and the Oxford team (to develop a vaccine which is known as Covishield in India).”

“SII successfully developed the adenovirus technology, which was not available in India.”

“Now, you look at the entire change ICMR has brought in. We are relying on two vaccines which are made nationally.”

ICMR also has been able to ensure that newer vaccine technology comes to India, he said.

“India has Zydus Cadila which is developed and manufactured here. Manufacturing a successful DNA vaccine is a big thing as it was an improbable thing in the past as DNA vaccines tend to have poor immunogenicity and you need technology to ensure that the immunogenicity improves.”

He observed that India is “actually prepared” to overcome any challenge where it would have all technology platforms. “We can launch our own research efforts and try and ensure we are matching with anything in west or developed countries with appropriate scientific and developmental skills.”

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Source: News18