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Govt kick-starts talks toexplore vaccine deal

The government took the first steps on Monday to potentially secure a procurement deal for a Covid-19 vaccine, asking officials of five pharma firms, including three that have candidates in clinical trials, to present a road map within three days of how soon they can produce large quantities and what pricing they expect if their shot is approved.

India is yet to strike a pre-production deal with any of the vaccine developers that are in the race for a successful candidate, a strategy several advanced economies such as United States, United Kingdom and some European Union nations have adopted in order to jump what might be a long waiting line.

“Even as scientists are working to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, we are simultaneously working on procuring the final product to ensure availability and access to our population. As part of India’s proactive, pre-emptive and graded response to Covid-19 since January, the expert group is holding consultations with vaccine manufacturers to plan ahead for the production, pricing and distribution of the vaccine, whenever it is ready,” Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said following Monday’s meeting.

The meeting was held between an expert group spearheading India’s vaccine strategy and involved Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila – all three have vaccine candidates in human trials. Serum Institute is licensed to produce up to some quantities the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is largely considered the front runner globally.

The two others were Biological E and Gennova, both of which have candidates in preclinical phases. All five are Indian companies. Trial data of none of the India-made vaccines is yet to be made available.

The expert group asked the representatives of these companies to prepare and a present a comprehensive note on the way forward to the government by Thursday.

“We first need to get a sense of how prepared vaccine manufacturers are. There is no final number at the moment that the government is looking to pre-order, even though initial projections made a few months ago among the various departments involved talked about roughly 680 million vaccines being required, including primary and booster shots,” said a person aware of the discussions in the vaccine strategy-making process, asking not to be named.

“The target group is likely to be between 18 and 65 years. However, there is no final number decided as yet,” this person added.

The expert panel is headed by Niti Aayog member (health) VK Paul and Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan. The other members of the panel are department of biotechnology secretary Renu Swarup, Indian Council of Medical Research director general Dr Balram Bhargava, and department of pharmaceuticals secretary PD Vaghela.

In its official release, the health ministry confirmed representatives of the five manufacturers attended the meeting with the expert group. “The National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration today met leading domestic vaccine manufactures — Serum Institute of India, Pune; Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad; Zydus Cadila, Ahmedabad; Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, Pune; and Biological E, Hyderabad. The meeting was mutually beneficial and productive. It provided the National Expert Group with inputs about the present stage of various candidate vaccines being developed by the indigenous manufacturers as well as their expectations from the Union Government,” said a statement.

UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca and United States’s Moderna-NIAID are the global front runners for a coronavirus vaccine and are undergoing tests in the largest of the trials yet. India too is looking at these options, top government officials told HT earlier.

The national vaccine expert group has referred the matter of selection of the right vaccine candidate for use in the country to the Standing Technical Sub-Committee of National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI). NTAGI is an advisory committee consisting of multidisciplinary groups of experts advising the government on vaccine and immunisation policy based on available evidence.

The government will also closely track the progress of candidates being tested by the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech and Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila. Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) has struck a production and clinical trials deal with AstraZeneca for the AZD1222 vaccine.

The centre has already decided to take charge of procurement of the vaccine as and when it is ready. “The states have been told not to approach companies directly for procurement related requests,” confirmed a second official in the government in the know of things, who did not wish to be identified.

The first meeting of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 was held on August 12 with all states. India has decided to support its key neighbours and development partner countries for Covid-19 vaccines.

India has some of the biggest vaccine makers by volume and is also likely to receive some doses as part of multilateral mechanisms such as the World Health organization-led Covax Facility that is meant to ensure equitable distribution of doses between rich and emerging economies.

“This is just the right time to start planning as the competition for Covid-19 vaccine is going to be steep globally. It makes sense to plan for the logistics now to avoid last minute procurement rush, especially when you do not know which one of these vaccines is going to finally materialise,” said Dr K Srinath Reddy, founder, Public Health Foundation of India.

The health ministry announced earlier that the delivery mechanism will go digital to check last mile delivery on a real-time basis.

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