Indian vaccine makers say can quickly adapt to tackle variants

By Krishna N. Das and Arora Neha

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian pharmacies Bharat Biotech and Biological E. Ltd reported Monday that, when their genetic sequence is identified, they will easily revise their COVID-19 vaccine products to tackle new variants.

In the last few months, India reported the existence of variants first identified, presumed to explain the upsurge in cases in the Indian countries of Maharashtra and Kerala, in Brazil, Britain and South Africa.

In total, India has registered more than 11 million coronavirus infections, the world's biggest post-US infections and about 156,000 deaths.

'As we see several reappearances, we gather samples from hotspots and clusters, and we attempt to sequence them,' Nivedita Gupta, Deputy General Manager of the State Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), told the BioAsia meeting.

ICMR and Bharat Biotech have partnered to produce India's first indigenous vaccine COVID-19, which is being used in a national immunization program since mid-January, along with an AstraZeneca and Oxford University authorised vaccine that has protected over ten million people.

India is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, and its firms have vowed to manufacture trillions of COVID-19 shots.

Krishna Ella, President of Bharat Biotech, said his company wanted data primarily from ICMR or the World Health Organisation about the genetic sequencing of every vaccine in order to make an efficient vaccine rapidly.

At a conference organized by the state of Telangana, which is home to India's Hyderabad vaccine centre, Ella said that a product for the South African version could be developed in 15 days and would not require any modification of manufacturing.

Biological E. Managing Director Mahima Datla said the mutations "overly concerned" was not appropriate.

"Eventually we don't know which variant of the virus, which mutants will take over, but we think that it's prudent to work on technologies that address the new variants as well," she added.

Biological E., who has recently completed a Phase 1/2 clinical research in India with Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and Dynavax Technologys, Datla said.

Its substance uses recombinant protein technology to activate immune responses in cells using a harmless agent.

"Once you know the variant, when it's sequenced, it is fairly quick to deploy into a vaccine," says Datla, whose company will also shoot Johnson & Johnson's contractor.

(Barbara Lewis' reporting by Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora)