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.


Way forward

  • 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.
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