Dose of optimism
India must improve its cold chain infrastructure to avail benefits of new vaccines
Multinational drug company Pfizer has announced promising results from its ongoing phase-3 trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. However, these early results, of the vaccine candidate being “90% protective” in the trial’s volunteers — nearly 40,000 are enrolled — is the only important detail that is public.
- Pfizer, which is using a vaccine candidate by German firm BioNTech, had disclosed in September that for a vaccine to be judged 60% effective, 164 volunteers would have to contract COVID-19.
- This includes both the vaccine and placebo groups. The claim of 90% is based on a sample of 94 volunteers but it is not known how many belonged to either group.
- It is also unclear if those who were eventually infected, manifested mild or moderate severity of disease.
- Though the results, according to Pfizer, were announced by an expert independent committee, they have not yet been announced by the standard procedure of a peer-reviewed journal.
- In short, there is still time to be reliably sure that the results actually hold up in a wider population.
- Pfizer’s announcement may not have an immediate impact for India. Unlike ‘Covishield’ by the Serum Institute or ‘Covaxin’ by Bharat Biotech Ltd., there are no large phase-3 trials of the vaccine in India.
- While there were early discussions with Pfizer, there is as yet no confirmation on whether India can be assured of early access to even a fraction of the vaccine output in the event it is readied.
- The vaccine candidate is based on an m-RNA technology, which eschews the use of an infectious particle, such as a portion of the virus, and uses a piece of RNA that is then made into an antigen by the body’s own machinery.
- This reduces the odds of untoward reactions. It also does not need to be cultured in chicken eggs or other mammalian cells, allowing it be made faster and more inexpensively.
- Though it is at the frontier of novel vaccine production methods, there are still no commercially available m-RNA based vaccines.
- They also reportedly need to be refrigerated to nearly minus 70°C and India, with its limited cold chain infrastructure, lacks efficient vaccine storage capacity. However, irrespective of whether and when the Pfizer vaccine is available, there is reason for optimism.
- For one, it shows that scientists’ basic strategy — of developing a vaccine to target the spike protein of the virus — is correct and given that this is an approach most vaccine developers are following, the chances of several encouraging results are high.
- Given that another firm, Moderna, also employs an m-RNA based approach, it is likely that the new vaccine platform may prove to be a breakthrough approach in developing future vaccines.
- India must keep a close watch on such platform-technology and develop expertise.
- It must also not lose an opportunity to improve its cold chain infrastructure which currently is developed only for rudimentary vaccines.