By Eric Bellman/The Wall Street Journal
New Delhi, March 3 (WSJ): India’s Bharat Biotech said its Covid-19 vaccine has proven 81% effective at protecting people in a large clinical trial, a report that could invigorate India’s inoculation drive and vaccine-diplomacy efforts.
Bharat Biotech is one of the world’s largest producers of vaccines but is little known outside of the industry. It has been developing a Covid-19 vaccine since the first half of 2020, which New Delhi approved for emergency use this year. India has already administered the vaccine to more than one million people.
Many Indians, however, have said they were reluctant to get the Bharat Biotech shot as they wanted to wait for the results of late-stage trials. India’s vaccination drive has been going much slower than anticipated and some healthcare workers said one of the reasons was that people didn’t feel confident about the Bharat Biotech vaccine.
The company said it wanted to clear up any concerns with its announcement on Wednesday. The interim results of its Phase 3 trial—which gave 25,800 people between the ages of 18 and 98 its vaccine or placebos—suggest that it is effective against Covid-19. The company added that it has early indications that it is also effective against the more-contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus.
“Today is an important day for us, the company and also for the country and Indian science,” said Krishna Ella, the chairman and managing director at Bharat Biotech.
More than 11 million people have been confirmed infected in India, a number surpassed only by the U.S. While fewer Indians per capita are getting killed by the virus, the country’s economy has been among the hardest hit.
India is in the middle of what may be the world’s most ambitious vaccination drives. It is trying to get shots to 300 million of its more than 1.3 billion citizens by August. It has administered around 15 million doses so far, most of them the vaccine developed in the U.K. by Oxford University and AstraZeneca PLC and mass-produced in India by the Serum Institute of India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi broadcast his confidence in the local vaccine this week when he took his first shot of the Bharat Biotech version.
“Remarkable how our doctors and scientists have worked in quick time to strengthen the global fight against COVID-19,” he tweeted with a photo of him getting the shot.
As highly transmissible coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand why these new versions of the virus are spreading faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. New research says the key may be the spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its unmistakable shape.
India has emerged as a surprise front-runner in vaccine diplomacy, stepping up to help mostly developing countries, and some rich countries as well, as much of the supplies in the U.S. and Europe have been allocated and manufacturers around the world have run into unexpected production bottlenecks.
India has been able to send tens of millions of doses abroad because of the huge production capacity of Serum Institute of India, which has been churning out enough AstraZeneca vaccines to supply the local inoculation drive with more than enough left over for export. It has exported more than 45 million doses to around 45 countries including Canada, Kenya and Cambodia. Around 7 million of those doses were donated by the Indian government.
With the Phase-3 results, Bharat Biotech also plans to become a big exporter. It said Wednesday that more than 40 countries were already interested in using its vaccine.
The company isn’t new to the vaccine race. It has produced billions of doses of other vaccines over the years. It said its Covid-19 vaccine would be particularly competitive with the many on the market because it only needs to be stored in regular refrigerators and doses can be used up to 28 days after a vial is opened. Other vaccines often have to be used within hours of opening, meaning any doses left unused in a day must be thrown away.
The Bharat Biotech vaccine was developed along with th Indian Council of Medical Research, a government organization, which said the late-stage trial success was a matter of national pride.
“The bench-to-bedside journey of completely indigenous Covid-19 vaccine in less than eight months’ time showcases the immense strength of self-reliant India to fight the odds and stand tall in the global public health community,” said Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR. “It is also a testament to India’s emergence as a global vaccine superpower.”
—Krishna Pokharel contributed to this article.