VACCINE WARRIORS
Fortune India|May 2021
BHARAT BIOTECH HAS BEEN AT THE FOREFRONT OF MAKING VACCINES FOR SWINE FLU, POLIO, AND OTHER VIRAL DISEASES FOR A QUARTER OF A CENTURY. YET IT TOOK A GLOBAL PANDEMIC FOR THE SPOTLIGHT TO SHINE ON THE COMPANY CO-FOUNDED BY KRISHNA M. ELLA AND HIS WIFE SUCHITRA M. ELLA.
Anshul Dhamija

It was September 2019. Dr. T. Jacob John had just finished giving a speech at Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) in Hyderabad and was touring its manufacturing facility. It was then that John—a paediatrician and renowned virologist who set up the clinical virology department in Christian Medical College, Vellore, in the late ’60s—saw something that took him by surprise: a bio-safety level 3, or BSL-3, facility. Surprising because while BBIL was making 16 different vaccines, including six for viral diseases, none of them were so deadly as to require such a state-of-the-art safety facility.

Little did John or BBIL realise how prescient that would turn out to be.

Mere months later, BBIL, started by Krishna M. Ella and his wife Suchitra in 1996, was one of two Indian companies that plunged headlong into manufacturing a vaccine candidate for SARSCoV-2, the virus strain that causes Covid-19. The other was Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. But there was one major difference. While SII would merely produce the Covishield vaccine being developed by the U.K.-based partnership of AstraZeneca and Oxford University, BBIL, true to its roots, would both develop and produce its candidate, Covaxin.

“I’ve not asked Krishna,” says John. “But knowing his personality, he must have thought to himself, ‘I’m an Indian, therefore what little I can do to help India I will do’.” He wasn’t far from the truth. “I believe that the ‘I’ in India should always stand for innovation. That’s the principle I work on,” says the 65-year-old Ella, chairman and managing director of BBIL.

And BBIL has stood by that principle for the past 25 years. It has more than 140 patents and has delivered more than 4 billion doses of vaccines worldwide. “If you take a look at their history, there was the H1N1 vaccine (in 2010), a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis (2014), and the Rotavirus vaccine (2015). This company has a long history of being concentrated on the research and development (R&D) side of biotechnology, which is a niche,” says Vishal Bali, executive chairman, Asia Healthcare Holdings. He cements his point by noting that Indian pharma companies traditionally spend just about 6% of their revenue on R&D. In India, known as the vaccine capital of the world, “here is a company that is led by R&D,” adds Bali.

BBIL has spent about $70 million so far on Covaxin, which is indigenously developed in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Ella was keen to partner with a government entity, and ICMR in particular, to get access to its “best asset”—the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune. Not only was the SARS-CoV-2 strain sourced from NIV, but the institute also helped BBIL in animal trials. “This project is a demonstration of world-class Indian skill, Indian knowledge, and Indian technology,” says Suneeta Reddy, managing director, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise. “Beyond the immediate, for me, this is the perfect moment to seize and create R&D capability in India. We are a large nation, and we deserve world-class R&D focussed on understanding our own complex heterogeneous population.”

VACCINES FOR THE WORLD

1,080 crore

BBIL’s operating income in FY20, while its profit after tax was 298 crore, according to a research note by ICRA Limited in October 2020.

1,200

The amount private hospitals will pay for a single dose of Covaxin. State governments will pay 600 per dose, while the export price will be $15-$20 per dose.

30 MILLION

The number of Covaxin vaccine doses that BBIL has supplied to the Indian government as of April 2021.

4 BILLION

The total number of vaccine doses BBIL has supplied worldwide. It has a product portfolio of more than 16 vaccines, including those for H1N1 (swine flu), polio, Rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, and the conjugated vaccine for typhoid. SOURCE : COMPANY

Perhaps that was why Ella, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, did things a bit differently. While some pharma majors developed adenovirus-based vaccines, like AstraZeneca’s Covishield and Russia’s Sputnik V, the likes of Pfizer and Moderna used the new, more modern mRNA platform. Ella, though, opted for a tried and tested technology, one he says has been around for “over 100 years”.

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