A member of the medical team at the Central Hospital in Wuhan attends to a patient infected with the coronavirus. Photo: Handout / AFP

It is a race against time to beat a virus that the World Health Organization has labeled as a global threat. But in six months an Indian firm and its US partner is hoping to combine cutting edge algorithms and genetics to start clinical trials of a vaccine to counter the coronavirus – known now as Covid-19.

The world’s largest vaccine maker – Serum Institute of India Private Ltd (SIIPL) – is working with Codagenix, a US firm, to try and create a vaccine by 2022.

This is a rare attempt to create a vaccine by undertaking research that usually takes seven years in half that time. SIIPL is attempting this because their US partner Codagenix has algorithms that can “crunch” the genetic variations needed to find a possible cure for Covid-19.

SIIPL’s CEO Adar Poonwalla says that in “three to four months” they will start testing trial vaccines on animals. “This collaboration happened because Codagenix has an algorithm to produce any virus at a rapid speed. For example, we already have potential candidates to go into animal studies for the latest coronavirus outbreak,” he told Asia Times via email.

“Most companies, including us, would generally not be interested in [developing a vaccine for] Ebola or the coronavirus. But I have taken the view to experiment with this technology to see if it will work, because in the future, if there is something serious that comes about and we need to be able to rapidly manufacture a vaccine. I wanted to test the Codagenix’s technology to see if it is possible or not,”Poonwala said.

“[But] I do believe that there will be some commercial value to this. I have already got inquiries from China to buy the rights and technology if this vaccine proves to work,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has promised to support any such venture in the hope of developing an early cure. Renuka Swarup, the top bureaucrat in the federal department of biotechnology told The Indian Express that they are committed to funding any research towards developing a vaccine.

Codagenix, the US partner, is planning to start tests on mice. After that, Poonwalla said, SIIPL’s role will to “establish the product on a suitable cell line” and scale-up. This will be “followed by funding and conducting human clinical trials” before the vaccine can be licensed. “SIIPL will then manufacture this worldwide except for the United States market,” Poonawalla said.

SIIPL has expertise in manufacturing multiple different types of vaccines. The firm does not see creating one to counter Covid-19 as a major test. “The real challenge is to see if it really works and is efficacious in humans. (The) challenge will be to prove (it) as a massive efficacy study and design a trial in a country where there are outbreaks,” he said.

That suggested the most likely place for vaccine trials would be in China, where the virus is thought to have originated.

It takes generally seven to eight years to develop a vaccine. “For example, our Rotavirus vaccine for pneumonia, was just launched after working on it for nearly eight years. It takes that much time because of animal studies, human studies,”Poonwalla said.

They also have to ensure that a strain of the virus does not revert to the original wild type and is safe to use on humans.

The novel coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan with first reports in early January this year. By February 21, it had killed 2,247 and infected over 76,000 people globally, the vast majority in China, which has struggled to contain the epidemic.

While there is no cure for the virus yet, scientists have tackled the family of coronaviruses before. Firms like SIIPL are also hoping that people will continue to use the vaccine to ensure there is no recurrence in the future. However, Poonwalla said, from experience, people tend to avoid vaccines once the initial scare dissipates.

“The last time we had developed a flu vaccine, during the H1N1 crisis, we saw that after two years nobody wanted to take the vaccine. This is because in India, unlike in Europe and United States, adults generally do not take flu vaccine or any other kind of vaccines,” he said.

“People are lacking in awareness and in India we rush to take the cure after we get the disease. I am working on changing this mindset,” he said.

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