After engaging in a war of words, the chiefs of two of India’s leading vaccine makers — Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India (SII) — called a truce on Tuesday and pledged to work together for a “smooth roll-out” of Covid-19 vaccines.
In a joint statement, Bharat Biotech Chairman and Managing Director Krishna Ella and SII Chief Executive Officer Adar Poonawalla said the more important task in front of them was to save the lives and livelihoods of populations in India and the world. “Vaccines are a global public health good and they have the power to save lives and accelerate the return to economic normalcy at the earliest,” the statement read.
“Now that two Covid-19 vaccines have been issued EUA (emergency use authorisation) in India, the focus is on manufacturing, supply, and distribution...Both companies are fully engaged in this activity and consider it our duty to the nation and the world at large to ensure a smooth roll-out of vaccines,” it said. Poonawalla had tweeted about releasing a joint statement earlier in the day, while Bharat Biotech put out the statement on its Twitter handle.
The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) on Sunday approved Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine, manufactured by SII in India as Covishield, and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin for restricted emergency use in the country. However, a group of experts questioned the approval process, triggering a war of words.
While Poonawalla had told a television channel that there were only three vaccines in the world with proven efficacy (Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca) and everything else had been proven safe “just like water”, Ella said if his firm had done trials like AstraZeneca, the drug regulator would have “shut down the company”.
It is learnt that the government did not take the controversy lightly and a top official in New Delhi engaged in the process of monitoring vaccine roll-out called up the two firms, asking them to put up a face of solidarity in public.
On Monday, a visibly upset Ella had told the media that the approval was given to his vaccine candidate based on the “excellent” animal challenge study data and on the fact that it had showed safety in over 25000 people. In the backdrop of a mutated strain from the UK, Ella felt that his vaccine candidate would prove effective as it was based on an inactivated whole virus platform. As for data on the matter, he said he needed a week’s time.
He pointed out that how the clinical trial data was well published (across five journals), unlike his Indian peers, and felt that the inadvertent dosing error by AstraZeneca (when a half and full dose was given to one subset of volunteers) raised major questions on determining the vaccine’s efficacy. Both the firms together would have at least 70 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines ready by February and would thus play a major role in the roll-out of the vaccine in India for essential services workers. “The fight and the controversy surrounding the approval were definitely denting the country’s image. Moreover, it would impact the public perception of the vaccine. The regulator should have also explained the rationale behind the approvals instead of reading out from a sheet,” a senior official in the government said.