Countries which have taken Covishield have fared much better than those which relied only on mRNA vaccines, Serum Institute of India, chief executive officer Adar Poonawalla told ET in an interview, amid growing concerns about the adverse effects of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. He said his company has stopped the production of Covid-19 vtaccines and is no longer looking to invest in vaccines against Covid-19. Edited Excerpts:
Covid-19 numbers are receding. Do you think it’s still important for people to take a booster shot?
It is important to still boost; the US is even contemplating annual boosters. For the vulnerable categories and people who travel and go to very big social gatherings, it’s very important to take a booster. Now which booster is the only question? Covovax, which is our Novavax product, is proven to be the best against Omicron and Omicron sub-variants which are spreading in the world, including China. Covovax is also the only vaccine from India which is US and EMA (European Medicines Agency) approved … even Covishield is not approved by both. So, we have in India, a US and European approved vaccine which specifically works very well against Omicron. It is DCGI (Drugs Controller General of India) approved, and it is a matter of time till it goes on the CoWin app.
Do you think taking a Covid vaccine should become an annual affair?
Annual or once in two years or something.
Vaccines based on the mRNA platform are facing a lot of criticism. What do you think about the same?
For mRNA, I’m yet to see long-term protection. I have made some statements to say that the messenger RNA vaccines aren’t as good as the traditional vaccine, which is why I never went down the messenger RNA route for Covid. We can see that in real world data, not clinical trials (which is a small sample), that whichever countries have taken Covishield — and I’ll talk only about that — have fared much better compared to other countries who relied only on m RNA.
But then are you not using the mRNA platform for other vaccines as experts call it a new era in vaccinology?
We are looking at mRNA technology for non-Covid vaccines, maybe for cancer therapies and immunology … that’s where messenger RNA actually was supposed to be. So, we’ll see how that goes. We have got exclusive rights from a company called Green Light to access the messenger RNA platform for making anything that we want. We are constructing currently — it will be ready in a year’s time — a messenger R&D facility. And then we see what vaccines applications that can be useful. However, messenger RNA vaccines are still new. We need to understand how they can protect for the long term.
Are you working on any new vaccine against Covid-19?
No, now we are concentrating on non Covid-19 vaccines.
Which are these vaccines?
We are working on launching a malaria (vaccine) by the end of this year for the continent of Africa. Okay, not India because the malaria vaccine we made at the moment is against falciparum, which is a parasite found more over there. We will after a few years deal with the malaria issue in India. But probably before that, in about two and a half years’ time, we will have a dengue vaccine. We also have a dengue monoclonal antibody which is a cure, provided you are diagnosed early with dengue. If you go to the hospital and then take a monoclonal antibody … (it) is enough to bring down the viral load and prevent you from getting haemorrhagic fever and other complications in other organs.
By when will we have it?
We have submitted the application to conduct Phase 1/2 trials to the drug regulator. This is being done in partnership with the Indian Council of Medical research and also in collaboration with the National Institute of Health.
Are you exporting Covovax?
We have exported more than 100 million doses to the US and Europe. Because it’s US FDA and European approved. The other countries already took the vaccines. I assume that this will go as a booster for the US and Europe.
There was a controversy between Novavax and GAVI. Have you been affected by it too?
I think there were internal discussions on advances that they have given each other. But then the demand dried up. As the demand dried up, then obviously, people who placed orders wanted to wriggle out of it. We have no issues because we fulfilled our requirements and settled with Gavi. We have a separate contract with Gavi. We have a contract of Covovax with Gavi and they have their product Novavax. So, it is totally two separate things.