Cadila May Double Vaccine Capacity as Indian Cases Surge
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Ahmedabad’s Zydus Cadila facility to kick off his three-city visit to take stock of the Covid-19 vaccines being produced in India. (Source: PTI)

Cadila May Double Vaccine Capacity as Indian Cases Surge

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Indian drugmaker Cadila Healthcare Ltd., which expects regulatory approval for its vaccine against Covid-19 by June, will potentially ramp up capacity to 240 million annual doses as the South Asian nation races to contain the world’s fastest-growing coronavirus outbreak.

Ahmedabad, Gujarat-based Cadila is expecting efficacy readings from its last stage of clinical trials in May, Sharvil Patel, the family-run firm’s managing director, said in an interview. If that data is promising, the drugmaker may double its vaccine making capabilities and is banking on a new local factory that will likely be commissioned next month, according to Patel.

“We have done some work on improving our yield,” he said. “We are on track” to scale up capacity.

That extra vaccine firepower will help India curb a new and deadlier coronavirus wave washing across the country and overwhelming its crematoriums as well as its hospitals, which are running low on both beds and oxygen tanks. India has been creating new infection records, with a daily surge of more than 200,000 Covid cases and 1,000 deaths for five straight days. Cadila’s shot may also help ease up a recent vaccine shortage in some of the country’s virus epicenters.

Cadila May Double Vaccine Capacity as Indian Cases Surge

Fast-Tracked Approvals

India has currently authorized three vaccines. Two of them from Astrazeneca Plc and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International Ltd. are already in use, while the third -- Russia’s Sputnik V -- was greenlit last week. The South Asian nation has also fast-tracked approval for foreign vaccines and this month curbed exports as it struggles to contain the rampant outbreak.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has been pressuring vaccine makers to increase their output in the face of the virulent wave and after it expanded its immunization drive to include everyone over the age of 18 from May.

Bharat Biotech announced on Tuesday that it will try to ramp up annual production of its Covaxin shot to about 700 million doses after the government last week said it would provide the firm with a 650 million rupee ($8.7 million) grant.

Expanding capacity to make vaccines requires “investments of several millions of rupees and several years,” the Hyderabad-based company said in a statement. But Bharat Biotech will be able to boost its capability in a short space of time thanks to newly designed facilities, while “manufacturing partnerships are being explored with our partners in other countries,” it said.

Unlike traditional vaccines, Cadila’s ZyCoV-D does not inject a weakened form of the pathogen in the body to create antibodies. It is a plasmid DNA vaccine that instead introduces the DNA sequence encoding the antigen.

“Approved vaccines are ramping up capacity but only slowly,” Abhishek Sharma, a Mumbai-based heath care analyst with Jefferies, wrote in a report this month that estimated India had supplies for only 17 days a month at daily peak demand. The situation “appears promising” for adoption of Sputnik V and Cadila’s vaccine as well, according to Sharma.

Cadila started Phase 3, or final stage tests in December, with about 28,000 volunteers. Patel said he would be happy with efficacy rates of more than 70% and “if everything goes well” potentially see the vaccine given the regulator’s nod by June.

‘More Lethal’

Yet as multiple virus strains circulate around India, many scientists are also worried that the recent uptick in vaccinations -- with more than 123 million doses administered so far -- may not prevent new mutant variants from thwarting containment and inoculation efforts.

“The second wave is obviously more lethal and more infectious than the first,” Patel said, adding that he was confident Cadila’s vaccine can be updated to protect against emerging strains.

Supplies of Remdesivir, a much-touted Covid treatment that Cadila produces, have also been depleted across the country. Demand for the drug has led to large queues forming outside pharmacies and reports of black marketing. Cadila is attempting to bolster monthly production from 600,000 doses to about 2 million within 30 days, Patel said.

“Being an injectable product it requires time to manufacture -- you can’t overnight produce more, which has lead to a significant gap,” he said. “None of us expected this many cases.”

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