Vaccine-makers in the country seem to be tepid in their response to circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, even as other parts of the world authorise variant-specific vaccines or vaccinate their elderly. 

This week, the United States Food and Drug Administration authorised the emergency use of updated mRNA Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, to protect against an Omicron-variant reported to be dominant in the region. And the United Kingdom has started rolling out boosters for its elderly.

Indian vaccine-makers told businessline that they were tracking the coronavirus-variant-linked developments in other parts of the world, but details shared by them were limited.  

“Bharat Biotech (BB) is actively developing Covid vaccines against newer variants. The company is closely tracking variants of concern to determine their impact and potential prophylactic mitigations,” a company spokesperson said.

Another vaccine-industry representative added no vaccines were being made by Serum Institute of India (SII), since there was no demand. And this was across both alliances, AstraZeneca-Oxford-University and Novavax, respectively. However, the representative said the vaccine-maker could step-up production, if there was a spike in cases and boosters/precautionary doses were required.

“It’s like chasing variants,” says Raman Gangakhedkar, former head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), on tweaking vaccines to keep pace with a virus that will mutate to survive. Since vaccines do not stop the infection, he called instead for surveillance on Covid-linked mortality to understand if the circulating strain was severe. If genomic sequencing shows it is severe, then the “classical cascade of research” kicks-in, he said, adding that India now had mRNA and protein sub-unit vaccines to scale up if needed.

Public health expert and epidemiologist Chandrakant Lahariya also did not advocate another dose. “All respiratory illnesses need attention, and Covid-19 as it is now is of a lower relevance,” he said. Those with pre-existing diseases should be educated on managing their condition, he said, advising those immuno-compromised to speak to their doctors and take steps to boost their immunity.

mRNA and protein sub-unit vaccines

Corbevax, a recombinant protein sub-unit vaccine from Biological E, was the country’s first heterologous booster (that could be taken after two doses of another vaccine). The company, however, did not comment on variant-specific vaccines.

In June, Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, had received regulatory approval for the emergency use of the country’s first and only mRNA-based Covid-19 booster vaccine. This was an Omicron-specific vaccine, developed with support from the Department of Biotechnology, and it was thermo-stable (not requiring ultra cold-chain infrastructure). When it was launched, the company had indicated that a variant-specific vaccine could be developed in about three-months. An updated response is awaited from the company.

Of the country’s 200-crore-plus doses of Covid-19 vaccines administered, SII had done much of the heavy-lifting, with Covishield (AZ-Oxford vaccine) accounting for 174-crore-plus doses, according government data. Covaxin from Bharat Bio accounted for 36-crore plus doses. Corbevax (Bio E), accounted for over 7.38 crore doses administered, though it was a late entrant in the fray.