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Indian biotech ‘claims’ to develop Zika vaccine: intrigues virologists worldwide

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Zika virus

By KS Jayaraman

Bengaluru: Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech claims to make a “breakthrough” in developing two “candidate vaccines” against the deadly Zika virus, which has already aroused a global emergency, alarming many virologists.

The vaccines are said to be a “made in India” product.

Krishna Ella, managing director of Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, announced last week that his company is probably the first in the world to file a “global patent” for its vaccines against the virus that is suspected to cause birth defects and neurological problems and is terrorizing Brazil and other countries in South America. The company said it started work on the vaccines a year ago using “live” Zika virus. But, despite repeated requests from reporters, neither Ella nor the company’s spokesperson revealed from where or when the company got this virus.

“It is a serious question,” said Kalyan Banerjee, a renowned virologist and former director of the National Institute of Virology in Pune, a premier laboratory under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

“Normally one should not import any exotic virus into the country under any pretext,” Banerjee told reporters in an email. “Only the government of India’s biotechnology board or a similar body is authorized to give permission to import after ascertaining all aspects of the virus.”

“It is amazing how the said laboratory obtained the live virus, particularly when there is no record of isolation of Zika virus from the Indian subcontinent,” Banerjee said.

The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes Aegypti species of mosquitoes that are abundant in India.

“Regarding the company getting the virus and making a vaccine, it needs to be carefully investigated,” Banerjee said, pointing out that “loopholes in the import of pathogenic agents may lead to national disaster”.

He said strict vigilance was one of the main reasons why the yellow fever virus – which is also spread by Aedes mosquitoes and causes a fatal disease – never came to India.

Durga Rao, another leading virologist at the Indian Institute of Science here, agrees.

One can import a virus from any source with approval from ICMR or the department of biotechnology, “but an unauthorized introduction of a virus which is not reported yet in India by anyone could be a serious regulatory problem as it can get into the environment easily under our unsupervised facilities”, Rao said in an email.

But inquiries reveal that the vaccine maker failed to follow the standard procedure for importing the live Zika virus whose potential threat to newborns forced the World Health Organization on February 1 to declare a global emergency.

“We did not import the virus and Bharat (Biotech) got it themselves,” ICMR director general Soumya Swaminathan told reporters in an email to a query if the company sought its permission to import.

“There are safety concerns with Zika virus vaccine — so all steps in regulatory approval need to be followed,” she said.

Asked if the DBT gave the permission, its secretary K Vijayraghavan – instead of an emphatic yes or no – said that the question “is best addressed to the industry concerned”. In an email, he said the DBT is committed to working with ICMR and the health Ministry to ensure preparedness.

Apart from its reluctance to reveal the source of the virus used to develop the vaccines, the company has declined to give details about the global patent it claims to have filed in July 2015.

A search of the Indian Patent Office website for Bharat Biotech’s patent applications, or the company’s own website, does not show any specific filing for the Zika virus. One patent expert told reporters that “it is possible that the patent office hasn’t yet published this patent application”.

Some scientists are impressed – and at the same time intrigued – by the Indian company’s foresight in trying to develop a vaccine for a disease that was not yet there.

According to a report in the journal Science, “less than a year ago, Zika seemed too trivial for anyone to bother developing countermeasures”, and Brazil reported its first case (microcephaly) of Zika virus only in May 2015.

“But Bharat Biotech says it started work on the vaccine as early as in 2014 and filed for patents for two vaccines in July 2015 itself,” said one medical researcher who did not want to be named. “This defies credibility.”

But Bharat Biotech has dismissed this argument saying the company was already developing vaccines for chikungunya and dengue and it was natural to work also on a vaccine for Zika virus which too is spread by the same species of mosquito.

Although the Indian company has an early start in vaccine development, bringing the vaccine to the market will be years away, experts say. There is no monkey model yet to enable comparisons of candidate vaccines and human trials have to be done in endemic countries like Brazil, not in India. (IANS)

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ICMR Writes to States and UTs for Reducing Corona Testing Prices

The letter which dated May 25, told Chief Secretaries of all States and UTs to fix a price for the test

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ICMR
A team of ICMR is shown in the above photo. Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Wednesday wrote to all states and Union Territories about reducing the price for conducting the test for the diagnosis of COVID-19, according to Covid-19 pandemic in India updates.

In a letter, dated May 25, the Director General of the ICMR Balram Bhargava told Chief Secretaries of all States and UTs that since the testing supplies are stabilizing and are being locally procured as against the earlier situation when all supplies were imported, the states should negotiate with private labs and fix a price for the test.

“The earlier suggested upper ceiling of Rs 4,500, vide letter dated March 17 may not be applicable now and, therefore, all state governments/UT administrations are advised to negotiate with the private labs and fix mutual agreeable price for samples being sent by the government also for private individuals desirous of testing by these labs,” said Bhargava.

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All these development have led to evolved prices of the testing commodities. Pixabay

Speaking to IANS the PRO of the ICMR said, “Fixing the price for the test is up to states already. In the initial stages of the corona breakout, there was a crisis of the testing kits and reagents as we relied heavily on import. Keeping in view the efforts and cost of the procurement, the ICMR suggested the upper limit of the test at Rs 4,500. But the situation has changed now. The states can now negotiate and bring the prices down.”

Also Read: ICRA Expects Moderate Participation in Spectrum Auctions

The letter also mentioned how India ramped up the testing infrastructure along with indigenious development, validation of new testing platforms like TrueNat based test for COVID-19 and including alternative testing platforms like CBNAAT/GeneXpert and Abott HIV viral load testing machines besides validation and production of testing kits for RT-PCR tests.

All these development have led to evolved prices of the testing commodities. Therefore the earlier suggested upper ceiling may not be applicable now, it added. (IANS)

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COVID-19 Makes it Difficult to Manage Cancer Care: Oncologist

Dr Abhishek Shankar said that coronavirus has made it difficult to manage the cancer care delivery system

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Coronavirus outbreak has made it difficult to manage cancer care. Pixabay

By Dr. Abhishek Shankar

A recent report– ‘Cancer Care Delivery Challenges Amidst Coronavirus Disease – 19 (COVID-19) Outbreak’ published in the journal of Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention has pointed out that cancer patients are more susceptible to coronavirus than individuals without cancer as they are in an immunosuppressive state because of the malignancy and anticancer treatment. Oncologists should be more attentive to detect coronavirus infection early, as any type of advanced cancer is at much higher risk for unfavorable outcomes.

Author, Dr Abhishek Shankar, assistant professor in the department of radiation oncology at Lady Hardinge Medical College said that coronavirus has made it difficult to manage the cancer care delivery system.

“As we are having a lockdown in the whole country, patients can’t travel from one place to another. About 95 percent of the cancer care services are restricted to the urban areas but we also know that 70 percent of the people live in rural areas. So, there is a lot of disparity in cancer care. For cancer patients, stress is more disturbing for the patient rather than cancer itself,” Dr Shankar told ANI.

Cancer care
Dr. Shankar added that in this situation, it is very difficult to manage these people as they are unable to come to the hospital as we are running only emergency services. Pixabay

Also Read: Having a Child with Cancer Doesn’t Impact Parents’ Separation: Researchers

He added that in this situation, it is very difficult to manage these people as they are unable to come to the hospital as we are running only emergency services.

Talking about the report, Dr Shankar said, “We have published the paper on cancer care delivery, although guidance is that you shouldn’t delay and you should continue with the treatment. But there are many challenges that are coming right now. We have also advised cancer patients about the precautions they should take. Also, patients need to verify social media messages coming in from a credible source like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and WHO.”Furthermore, he suggests that persons suffering from cancer should get treated from nearby hospitals and try avoiding the delay.

The cancer specialist remarked that it is a dilemma for healthcare professionals as well as patients because there is an issue regarding what to follow and what not to. “To date, there is no scientific guideline regarding the management of cancer patients in the backdrop of coronavirus outbreak,” Dr Shankar informed.

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ICMR Reports Conducting Over a Million COVID-19 Tests

Over a million tests done: ICMR

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India ICMR COVID-19
The ICMR said that it has conducted over a million RT-PCR tests for novel coronavirus so far. Pixabay

The Indian Council of Medical Research on Sunday said that it has conducted over a million RT-PCR tests for novel coronavirus so far. This is a COVID-19 news.

In a press statement the apex medical research body said, “A total of 10,46,450 samples have been tested as on May 3 till 9 a.m.”

India ICMR COVID-19
“Our figures are being reconciled with ICMR” said the Health Ministry, adding that 124 cases are being assigned to states for contact tracing. Pixabay

There are at least 310 government laboratories and 111 private laboratories in the country, conducting the tests for the diagnosis of novel coronavirus disease, said the ICMR.

Also Read- More Than 150,000 Indians in UAE Register to Return to India

Meanwhile, the Union Ministry of Health and Family welfare on Sunday said that the total number of coronavirus cases stood at 39,980 with 28,046 active cases, 1,301 fatalities and 10,632 recoveries.

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“Our figures are being reconciled with ICMR” said the Health Ministry, adding that 124 cases are being assigned to states for contact tracing. (IANS)