Pune institute in global race for swine flu vaccine


New Delhi : It is ironical that Pune reported the first loss of life due to swine flu in India as it is home to the country’s largest biotech firm, which is also among the world’s leading players trying to develop a vaccine to fight the H1N1 virus.

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At the Serum Institute of India, a crack team of 16 scientists is running a battle against time as part of the global race to develop vaccines against the spread of swine flu that has claimed 10 lives in India, of which five were in Pune alone.

This team started work a few weeks after the first influenza A infection caused by a new virulent strain H1N1 was first detected April 12 in a small village near Veracruz in Mexico, says Technology Review magazine.

The scientists are working out of a state-of-the-art facility that meets global standards, called BioSafety Level2, says the Indian edition of the 109-year-old magazine brought out by the CyberMedia group.

“The flu transmission didn’t stop even after the increase in the summer temperatures,” said Suresh S. Jadhav, executive director with the Serum Institute and coordinator of the company’s swine flu vaccine initiative.

“Studies have indicated that people born after 1975 were more vulnerable due to the inability of their immune system to recognise this H1N1 virus strain,” Jadhav was quoted as saying in the magazine.

Technology Review says the World Health Organisation (WHO) has roped in as many companies as possible with expertise in manufacturing vaccines to develop inoculations against the H1N1 influenza strain.

“Though the Serum Institute is not a manufacturer of seasonal influenza vaccine, it was chosen from India by WHO to lead the challenge. Technical and other inputs to Serum followed,” the magazine said.

Apart from the Serum Institute, two other Indian companies – the New Delhi-based Panacea Biotec and the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech – also joined the race for the vaccine.

As per WHO’s terms, the Serum Institute will provide at least 10 percent of its swine flu vaccine production for use in other countries. “Such an assurance has been given by the Indian government,” says the institute’s senior director Satish Ravetkar.

Scientists at the institute say the first vaccines will be ready by September. They are preparing a limited human trial involving at least 25 volunteers.

“But it will be at least six months before the vaccine will be ready for mass use,” the magazine said.

According to experts, the reason why there is such an urgency in the case of producing a vaccine against swine flu is that while it takes about 25 weeks for a new influenza virus to cover the planet, it took the H1N1 virus just nine weeks to reach all continents.

The UN agency was forced to describe it as a pandemic, a technical term to describe a viral infection present widely in all the continents on earth, triggering a global response for a solution in the shortest possible time.