Not just bigwigs, even mid-rung local players join COVID-19 vaccine race

With vaccines of some firms already in animal trial phase, developers say that if all goes well, India could have a vaccine by next year.

IMAGE: Medics collect samples from a COVID-19 patient to test the status of his infection at Chaudhary Brahm Prakash Ayurved Charak Sansthan, in New Delhi. Photograph: PTI Photo

Not just bigwigs like Zydus and Serum but even mid-rung indigenous players across the country have joined the race for a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine.
The move comes at a time when Chinese research firms are entering phase II of clinical trials in a global race to find a vaccine for COVID-19.
India, too, is gearing up to develop its indigenous variant soon.
With vaccines of some firms already in animal trial phase, developers say that if all goes well, India could have a vaccine by next year.
So far, Indian companies that are in the race to make a vaccine include big players like Cadila Healthcare (Zydus Cadila), Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech as well as a start-up Mynvax, among others.
Now, joining the race are indigenous but mid-rung players like Gurugram-based IIT Bombay alumnus-led Premas Biotech, Ahmedabad-based animal vaccine player Hester Biosciences and pathlab start-up Neuberg Supratech.
They have started or are in the initial stages of developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
For instance, a team of researchers led by IIT Bombay alumnus Dr Prabuddha Kundu at Premas Biotech is developing a triple antigen vaccine.
It has successfully identified three major antigens as a recombinant coronavirus vaccine candidate.
According to Kundu, unlike single-protein vaccines currently under trials across the world, Premas Biotech has adopted a three-pronged approach to develop a multi subunit vaccine.
It is using recombinantly expressed antigens Spike (S), Envelope (E), and Membrane (M) proteins in multiple formats, which it hopes will provide a good chance of immunity against COVID-19.
The company is now moving forward with developing the scale up designs and applying for animal trials.
Similarly, Ahmedabad-based Hester Biosciences has collaborated with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 based on the recombinant avian paramyxovirus-based vector platform.
It has also been explored as a vaccine vector for animal pathogens like infectious bursal disease virus, infectious laryngotracheitis virus, bovine herpes virus, and Nipah virus, among others.
On the other hand, the Gujarat government’s arms have also joined their private counterparts in developing a vaccine.
Gujarat government arm Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre (GBRC) has signed an MoU with Neuberg Supratech Reference Laboratory, Ahmedabad, a unit of Neuberg Diagnostics Private Limited, for developing COVID-19 recombinant vaccine and diagnostics.
Neuberg is a start-up in the pathlab chain segment.
As part of the MoU, Neuberg Supratech will look for immune markers for the COVID-19 positive patients by using several in-house high throughput sequencing machines.
“Our role is to take samples from asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19 positive patients and identify the peptide chain of protein molecule.
"This will be passed on to GBRC for developing a vaccine. Now that the MoU has been signed, we will apply for necessary regulatory approvals,” said Sandip Shah, executive director, Neuberg Diagnostics Private Limited & director, Neuberg Supratech Reference Lab, Ahmedabad.
Kundu said that based on an exclusive D-Crypt technology, developed and improved upon by Premas Biotech over the past decade, a modified version of baker’s yeast is being used to recombinantly produce the antigens.
“Baker’s yeast grows fast, is more cost-effective as compared to other modern technologies and has been viewed as a safe compound by regulatory agencies like the USFDA and DCGI in other drugs.
"Specifically, a yeast host platform has been successfully used to produce many drugs, including insulin and many blood products and hormones,” Kundu added.
Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru, too, is trying to design and test variants of the spike glycoprotein as vaccine candidates, the latter are being tested in animal models by Mynvax, a start-up.
Meanwhile, Hester Biosciences managing director (MD) and chief executive officer (CEO) Rajiv Gandhi said the company’s involvement would be from master seed development to release of the commercial vaccine.
Primarily an animal healthcare company and the second largest poultry vaccine manufacturer, this is the first time Hester is foraying into human vaccines.
“We have plants in Tanzania, too, where we are in discussion with the government there for a human vaccine.
"Going forward, our human vaccine division could overtake our animal vaccine division,” he said.

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