COVID-19: Oxford vaccine effective in monkeys, heading for mass production in India

(SCMP) – A leading candidate for a Covid-19 vaccine has shown promising results in animal trials, and is expected to see mass production in India within months.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume, said on Tuesday that it plans this year to produce up to 60 million doses of a potential vaccine developed by the University of Oxford, which is under clinical trial in Britain.

While the vaccine candidate, called “ChAdOx1 nCoV-19”, is yet to be proven to work against Covid-19, Serum decided to start manufacturing it as it had shown success in animal trials and had progressed to tests on humans, Serum Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla said.

Six rhesus macaque monkeys were inoculated with the vaccine candidate at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana last month, according to The New York Times.

The subjects were exposed afterwards to large quantities of the novel coronavirus, but all six remained healthy after more than 28 days, the newspaper reported, citing researcher Vincent Munster, who conducted the test.

More than 3 million people have been reported to be infected globally and over 210,000 have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

“They are a bunch of very qualified, great scientists [at Oxford] … That’s why we said we will go with this and that’s why we are confident,” Poonawalla told Reuters in a phone interview.

“Being a private limited company, not accountable to public investors or bankers, I can take a little risk and sideline some of the other commercial products and projects that I had planned in my existing facility,” Poonawalla said.

As many as 100 potential Covid-19 candidate vaccines are now under development by biotech and research teams around the world, and at least five of these are in preliminary testing in people in what are known as phase one clinical trials.

Poonawalla said he hoped trials of the Oxford vaccine, due to finish in about September, would be successful. Oxford scientists said last week the main focus of initial tests was to ascertain not only whether the vaccine worked but that it induced good immune responses and no unacceptable side effects.

Serum, owned by the Indian billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, plans to make the vaccine at its two manufacturing plants in the western city of Pune, aiming to produce up to 400 million doses next year if all goes well, Poonawalla said.

“A majority of the vaccine, at least initially, would have to go to our countrymen before it goes abroad,” he said, adding that Serum would leave it to the Indian government to decide which countries would get how much of the vaccine and when.

Serum envisages a price of 1,000 rupees (US$14.70) per vaccine, but governments would give it to people without charge, he said.

He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office was “very closely” involved in the vaccine production and the company is hoping the government will help foot the cost of making it.

Over roughly the next five months, Serum will spend some 300 million to 400 million rupees (US$4.4 million to US$5.9 million) on making around 3-5 million doses per month, he said. “[The government] are very happy to share some risk and fund something with us, but we haven’t really pencilled anything down yet,” Poonawalla said.

Serum has also partnered with the US biotech firm Codagenix and Austria’s Themis on two other Covid-19 vaccine candidates and plans to announce a fourth alliance in a couple of weeks, he said.

Serum’s board last week also agreed to invest roughly 6 billion rupees (US$8.8 billion) on making a new manufacturing unit to solely produce coronavirus vaccines, Poonawalla said.