While the incidence of meningitis or meningococcal disease in India is low, the available vaccine for the disease is ‘narrow’ and extremely expensive, says Davinder Gill, CEO, Hilleman Laboratories, a ‘non-profit joint venture’ between US pharma major Merck and UK-based Wellcome Trust.

An IIT- Kharagpur alumnus, Gill has worked with MNCs such as Wyeth and Pfizer, and now steers Hilleman’s vaccine R&D lab, in Delhi. He spoke to BusinessLine on his company’s about ₹300-crore investments in R&D for affordable vaccines.

Why did you choose to work on a vaccine for meningitis?

We are trying to address the gap in meningitis treatment. A vaccine is there, but it is relatively narrow, as it is only directed towards meningococcal sero group A. The disease is caused by sero groups C, Y, W, X, too. So, the vaccine that we have developed is broad. For this, we have used a strength that India naturally has in the areas of synthetic organic chemistry. The project is still in the research phase. We are in the process of completing some pre-clinical studies.

Are you looking for partnerships in India for this?

Yes, we would like to seek partners. These can be a specialty pharma company, a vaccine developing company or a government enterprise interested in developing this vaccine. Collaborations will be necessary to take this to the next level (manufacture).

We have talked to some organisations in India and abroad, but have not finalised anything yet.

Once that is done, we will go in for clinical development.

If we find the right partner in a five-seven year timeframe, this product should be tested clinically, and produced in countries were meningococcal disease is a problem.

Usually, a large capital investment is required for creating any vaccine. 

But, Hilleman has taken an approach that will allow the vaccine to be created at a lesser cost. Moreover, this is 10 times more effective than the existing vaccine.

Have you done any study on the spread of meningitis or deaths due to it in India?

The disease is quite prevalent in India and sub-Saharan Africa, but robust epidemiological studies are lacking.

So, there is no official estimate of the disease and mortality due to it.

(Meningitis is caused by bacteria that spread through coughing and sneezing)

Once the vaccine is in place, will you be looking at entering the National Immunisation Programme?

Of course, in time we will do that.

At the moment, the big thrust in the National Immunisation Programme — Mission Indradhanush — is 80 per cent immunisation in basic vaccines.

It will also include four new vaccines, and Rotavirus is part of that. We hope other vaccines will be added later.

How much are you investing in R&D for the meningitis vaccine?

I can’t give you the exact number, but it’s a significant sum. For future R&D investments, we are looking at about ₹ 300 crore in the next three-five years across vaccines for cholera, rotavirus, meningitis and neo-natal E.coli infection.

Do you think India’s stance on clinical trials of vaccines is stringent?

India should adopt global standards in clinical trials and needs to make sure that safety and adverse event monitoring are on the right track. Standardisation is now happening.

What are your views on the existing R&D ecosystem in India?

The R&D ecosystem in India has a lot of room to grow.

One the one hand, we have an excellent record in providing high-quality, low-cost vaccines for global use, but expectations for global stakeholders is that India will continue to provide these.

That kind of pressure on costs prevents companies from taking risks in investing in vaccine R&D, unless there is support from the government or through global organisations.

Global companies need some profit margin that can be invested back in R&D.