Sunday, 20 Jun 2021

India's shortage-hit Covid-19 inoculation drive may get lifeline from Russia's Sputnik V vaccine

BANGALORE – As India grapples with shortages of its locally made Covid-19 vaccines, Russia’s Sputnik V may become a shot in the arm for the country’s crumbling inoculation drive.

About 210,000 doses have arrived from Russia in recent weeks – the first foreign vaccine to be imported into India. Hyderabad-based Dr Reddy’s Laboratories will make them available to Indians at 995.40 rupees (S$18) per dose.

Dr Reddy’s Laboratories will also distribute the vaccine doses produced domestically in India.

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), has been in talks with Indian pharmaceutical companies since March last year to manufacture the vaccine. It has also contracted 20 other manufacturers in 10 countries, including Brazil, South Korea, China, Italy, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Dr Reddy’s was the first to announce a tie-up with RDIF in India last year. It conducted the mandatory bridging clinical trials for the Russian vaccine, after which it sought an emergency approval from the Indian drug regulator.

Sputnik V’s clinical trial data in medical journal The Lancet claimed an efficacy level of 91.6 per cent.

In mid-April this year, Sputnik V was approved for use in India, apart from Bharat Biotech’s indigenous Covaxin and Serum Institute of India’s AstraZeneca, also called Covishield.

The news raised the hopes of many citizens who have been desperate to get the jab. Only 3 per cent of India’s population of 1.35 billion people have been fully vaccinated, but supplies of the two local vaccines have dwindled even as the country is experiencing an alarming peak in infections.

India recorded more than 267,000 new infections on Wednesday (May 19), and more than 4,500 deaths.

The second wave is now ravaging villages. While more than 60 per cent of cases are from the rural districts, only an estimated 12 per cent to 15 per cent of the inhabitants there had received at least one dose of the vaccine as at May 14.

As the Indian government placed advance orders only on April 30 for 110 million and 50 million new doses of Covaxin and Covishield respectively, the jabs are not expected before July. The new doses may still not be enough to inoculate everyone over the age of 18 now eligible to get vaccinated. Availability of the Russian vaccine will help enhance supply.

By the end of 2020, Russia had signed manufacturing contracts with five leading pharma companies: Hetero Biopharma, Gland Pharma and Virchow Biotech in Hyderabad; Stelis Biopharma in Bangalore and Panacea Biotec in Delhi.

The companies have been readying their facilities to start manufacturing later this year. Together, they will make more than 450 million doses of Sputnik V annually, more than half the vaccine’s global production.

On May 18, Shilpa Biologicals from Dharwad, Karnataka, became the sixth company to enter into a three-year agreement with Dr Reddy’s to make 40 million to 50 million doses of Sputnik V a month by August.

It is unclear how much of what is manufactured in India is for local use.

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“India will be a key hub for production of vaccines in India and for other countries,” Mr Kiril Dmitriev, chief executive officer of RDIF, said in April.

Mr Hemanth Nandigala, director of Hyderabad-based Virchow Biotech, said: “All the production in India will go to the Russian firm which owns the technology and sent to various locations depending on the need (for vaccines).” His 20-year-old biologics firm has signed up to produce 200 million doses of the vaccine.

“Assuming that various Indian sites are producing today, and the requirement is also in India, most of the production might be for India. But that will be determined by the Russian firm,” he added.

Dr Reddy’s, which is the sole distributor for Sputnik V in India, said it would work closely with the Indian authorities and the private sector to ensure the widest possible reach of the Sputnik V vaccine as part of the national inoculation effort.

Calling Sputnik V a “Russian-Indian vaccine”, Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev said: “We expect that its production in India will be gradually increased up to 850 million doses per year.”

He added that there were also “raw plans to introduce” a single-dose vaccine called Sputnik Lite in India.

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