Rotavac is not India’s first indigenous vaccine

While the recently released low-cost rotavirus vaccine, Rotavac, is a great achievement for the country, it is not the “first indigenously developed vaccine”, as the prime minister’s office claims and then was parroted by newspapers. The honour goes to the bubonic plague vaccine developed in Bombay in 1897.

This is also not just a matter of semantics, where we ought to assume that the prime minister’s office implies “indigenous” to mean developed in Independent India. Because, as we have seen in the past, the prime minister is only too happy to (wrongly) claim centuries-old achievements to be “Indian innovations”.

India has played an important role in the history of vaccine’s use to fight disease. Their use means that the poorest of the poor today can live well beyond the age at which most kings died not too long ago. And the least we can do when we take vaccination forward in India today is to honour our past achievements.

Honouring history

The use of the first vaccine was pioneered by English scientist Edward Jenner in 1798. In the two centuries since, we have developed vaccines to fight 25 diseases. Fittingly, the disease against which the first vaccine was developed – smallpox – has been eradicated globally. The next disease on the list of diseases to be eradicated by the use vaccines could be polio.

But for nearly 100 years after the smallpox vaccine came in to use, the process of developing vaccines against other diseases remained difficult. This is because a vaccine then needed a naturally existing weak form of the disease. In the case of smallpox, that weak form was found in cowpox.

However, almost by accident, Louis Pasteur developed a laboratory method to generate a weak form of a disease. He used the method to create a vaccine against anthrax and chicken cholera. This is what revolutionised the work against infectious diseases.When injected into or ingested by the human body, vaccines work by stimulating the immune system and preparing it for when the real thing attacks in the future. Many vaccines provide lifelong immunity to a disease.

A young Russian, Waldemar Haffkine, was keenly following Pasteur’s work. At the time, cholera epidemics were common worldwide and someone had claimed to have isolated the bacteria that caused the disease. Despite Pasteur and Jenner’s work, many believed that that bacteria can’t be the sole cause behind cholera.

However, Haffkine agreed with the theory and worked hard on developing a cholera vaccine. He achieved success in 1892 and conducted the first human trial of the vaccine on himself. Having survived, he made the findings public but was dismissed by senior scientists.

The Plague Laboratory

Determined to see his invention have some impact on the world, he travelled to India where cholera epidemics had caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. His trials in Uttar Pradesh succeeded and he managed to vaccinate thousands. In 1895 he returned to France having caught malaria. But in 1896 was requested by the Governor of Bombay to help develop a vaccine against plague, which was ravaging the population of Bombay and Poona.

Against the advise of his French doctor, Haffkine travelled back to India and worked persistently to develop a plague vaccine. He succeeded within months, and, like the last time, tested the vaccine on himself. Within a few years, the vaccine was used to inoculate millions of people.

In 1899, a former residence of the Governor of Bombay was turned in to the Plague Laboratory and Haffkine made its director. The lab was renamed the Haffkine Institute in 1925, and remains an active institute for biological research in the country.

Haffkine was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897. A London magazine wrote this about the announcement: “a Russian Jew, trained in the schools of European science, saves the lives of helpless Hindoos and Mohammedans and is decorated by the descendant of William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great.”

If you forgive the colonial tone, it is an apt eulogy in a rapidly globalising world that was being created then. His work is arguably no less “indigenous” to India than Rotavac, so it is sad that we forget such a legacy in celebrating the country’s new achievements.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image from Wikipedia

‘Clone by phone’ means faster vaccine preparation

The 2009 influenza pandemic prompted the fastest effort in history to develop a vaccine. Within six months of the pandemic declaration, vaccine-makers had developed, produced and distributed hundreds of millions of doses. Unfortunately for some of the flu’s victims, even that response was not fast enough.

Now researchers in the US have created a vital part of a flu jab using a process that takes less than five days. As reported in Science Translational Medicine, the team led by Philip Dormitzer of drug company Novartis has shown that their method is superior to traditional vaccine efforts in both speed and quality. Their hope is that it will make regulators rethink current practice, which does not allow the use of their technology.

Approved methods for making vaccines involve collecting flu virus from patients and, if it’s different enough from previous strains, sending it to vaccine-makers. Once researchers complete the necessary genetic manipulation, a version of the virus is injected into chicken egg cells and allowed to replicate. After safety tests, this version of the virus becomes the vaccine that gets distributed.

These methods are regulated by the World Health Organisation, and have been used for many decades without much change, Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at University of Oxford said.

Instead, Dormitzer and his colleagues wanted to use a technique that has become much faster: gathering genetic data on site, for example, where the flu breakout occurred in China, and manufacturing a synthetic version of the virus in a lab, for example in the US. They also wanted to replicate the modified version of the virus in cells derived from a dog’s kidney, because they allow for faster production of virus “seed stock”, which can be used to manufacture vaccines.

To test whether these ideas stood the test, Dormitzer was provided genetic data of an unknown flu virus by the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on a Monday morning. Dormitzer’s team used the data to make DNA that would create a version of the unknown virus mixed with a laboratory strain, which is required to make the vaccine safe. Crucially, the hybrid they made contained information to instruct cells to make proteins (hemagglutinin and neuraminidase), from the unkown virus, that give new strains of flu the ability to evade the human immune system.

This was done by noon on Thursday, in just four days and four hours. The “seed” version was then successfully tested in ferrets, an animal model for flu vaccines. But Wendy Barclay, an influenza virologist at Imperial College London who did not work on the study, has warned, “This time does not account for the vast majority of time delay in rolling the vaccine out from seed virus.”

Nevertheless, the research shows that it is now possible to cut down the time needed to produce a seed virus significantly. Any time saved in responding to a flu pandemic is welcome. “Regulators need to capitalise on such developments,” Gilbert said.The Conversation

First published on The Conversation.

Image credit: ekigyuu