Science

DBT-backed global coalition funding coronavirus vaccine attempts

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on February 03, 2020 Published on February 03, 2020

With the novel coronavirus (nCoV) having been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on January 30, India is on high alert with three confirmed cases.

Globally, there have been 14,569 confirmed cases and 305 deaths within a month, much higher than that from the 2002-03 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), caused by another coronavirus. SARS resulted in 8,096 cases and 774 deaths over a period of nine months.

So no wonder the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) came under intense criticism for recommending unproven medicines to prevent and manage the latest coronavirus infection.

Worldwide, the race is going on to develop and evaluate vaccines, driven by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil society organisations. The Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology is a founding member of CEPI and several Indian scientists and scientists of Indian origin working overseas, including Dr Gagandeep Kang, Executive Director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Deputy Director-General, David Reddy, CEO, Medicines for Malaria Venture, and Rajeev Venkayya, Head of Global Vaccine Unit at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, play a major role in CEPI.

CEPI is currently backing four vaccine development efforts with funding: one university (Queensland) and three companies CureVac, Inovio and Moderna (the latter with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases).

But these vaccine candidates still have to be tested in animal models before they can enter human trials. With China refusing to share samples, the rest of the world had to wait for imported cases. The Doherty Institute in Melbourne in Australia was the first country outside China to isolate the virus; a few others have now followed suit.

Australian Animal Health Laboratory, part of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has already started to develop animal models for evaluating vaccines and therapeutics, with funding from CEPI.   . The principal investigator of this project is India-born professor Seshadri S Vasan, who leads the CSIRO Dangerous Pathogens Team.

“CSIRO and CEPI are working to complete the preclinical evaluation of candidate vaccines in the shortest possible time. In parallel, there is a need to accelerate the development and evaluation of therapeutics to complement vaccines. This is a marathon and we have just started. Therefore, it is important to relay in a collaborative manner with researchers around the world,” Vasan said in a statement.

Vasan hoped that these issues would be the focus of the WHO’s ‘Global research and innovation forum to finalise the roadmap for the 2019 novel coronavirus’, which is expected to be held soon.

According to CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett, the endeavour is to bring the pathogen’s gene sequence to a vaccine candidate for clinical testing within a few months ― which is significantly shorter than where we are now. “This is an extremely ambitious timeline and even if we are successful ― and there can be no guarantee ― there will be further challenges to navigate before we can make vaccines widely available,” Hatchett said.

In the meantime, the world is bracing up for economic losses to the tune of $30-100 billion with lasting health and economic impacts in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Asian Development Bank estimates.

Published on February 03, 2020
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