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NIV scientists responded to national need, did something phenomenal: Former top ICMR official

With the rollout of the country’s first indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, several scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) headquarters and Pune-based National Institute of Virology (NIV) said that despite the hardships, the experience has made for a “once-in-a-lifetime moment”.

Dr RR Gangakhedkar, who led the effort as the then chief of the ICMR’S epidemiology division, told The Indian Express that the vaccine rollout has been the result of translational research performed by ICMR scientists. “Given that it is a pandemic, our scientists responded to the national need and really did something phenomenal,” said Dr Gangakhedkar.

When asked whether the vaccine would be effective against the UK mutated strain and other emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2, he said that there is currently no robust data on the vaccine’s efficacy against the variants. “However, if Pfizer claims that their vaccine continues to work against these new variants, there is no reason that ours won’t,” he said.

Dr Samiran Panda, present head of the ICMR’S epidemiology division, told this newspaper that the indigenous vaccine’s first consignment being dispatched from Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech is a remarkable achievement. He added that the immunity which will be produced post vaccination may also address the mutant variants.

In an email to The Indian Express, Dr Priya Abraham, director, ICMR-NIV, said that scientists have made path-breaking efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Right from the daily testing of samples, timely reporting, isolating and characterising SARS-CoV2, genome sequencing, supplying reagents to government laboratories for diagnostic testing and validating kits of detecting the virus, providing the virus for vaccine development and eventually, performing animal studies for immunogenicity as well as challenge studies for vaccine efficacy — in collaboration with industries — it has been the tireless efforts of the NIV team, along with constant support from ICMR HQ (that made it all possible),” said Dr Abraham.

A few scientists at NIV, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they were ecstatic about the Covaxin rollout and it is a proud moment for them. “There were times when the situation was extremely challenging, especially in March… After such a long, hard journey, to come out with a vaccine is nothing short of history (being made) in Indian science,” said a scientist at NIV.

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