An Indian government-backed COVID-19 vaccine could be launched as early as February – months earlier than expected – as last-stage trials begin this month and studies have so far shown it is safe and effective, a senior government scientist has told the Reuters news agency.
Bharat Biotech, a private company that is developing COVAXIN alongside the government-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), had earlier hoped to launch it only in the second quarter of next year.
“The vaccine has shown good efficacy,” senior ICMR scientist Rajni Kant, who is also a member of its COVID-19 task force, said at the research body’s New Delhi headquarters on Thursday. “It is expected that by the beginning of next year, February or March, something would be available.”
Bharat Biotech could not immediately be reached for comment, Reuters said. A launch in February would make COVAXIN the first India-made vaccine to be rolled out.
India’s number of coronavirus infections rose by 50,201 on Thursday, increasing the total number of infections nationwide to 8.36 million – the second-highest number worldwide after the United States. Deaths rose by 704, with the total now at 124,315.
The daily rise in infections and deaths has slowed since a peak in mid-September. Kant, who is the head of ICMR’s research management, policy, planning and coordination cell, said it was up to the health ministry to decide if COVAXIN shots can be given to people even before the third-stage trials are over.
“It has shown safety and efficacy in the phase 1 and 2 trials and in the animal studies – so it is safe but you can’t be 100% sure unless the phase 3 trials are over,” Kant said. “There may be some risk, if you are ready to take the risk, you can take the vaccine. If necessary, the government can think of giving the vaccine in an emergency situation.”
Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said in September the government was considering granting an emergency authorisation for a COVID-19 vaccine, particularly for the elderly and people in high-risk workplaces. Several leading vaccine candidates are already in final-stage testing. An experimental vaccine developed by the United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca is among the most advanced ones, and the UK expects to roll it out in late December or early 2021.
AstraZeneca has signed several supply and manufacturing deals with companies and governments around the world, including with the Serum Institute of India. Other vaccines undergoing tests are being developed by Moderna Inc, Pfizer Inc with partner BioNTech SE, and Johnson & Johnson.