India Comes Up With Cheap,
Superior Anthrax Vaccine
By Ranjit Devraj
India has followed up its offer to supply
cheap anti-anthrax drugs to the United States with the announcement of
an affordable and effective vaccine against the deadly bacteria being
used in a spate of bio-terrorist attacks in America.
Indian Minister for Science and Technology Murli Manohar Joshi, who made
the announcement on November 5, said the vaccine used recombinant
technology and was developed at the prestigious Jawaharalal Nehru
University (JNU) located in the capital.
Joshi said Panacea Biotec Ltd., an Indian company, is already committed
to mass produce the vaccine which would be available at a fraction of
what existing vaccines cost. ''The exact cost per vaccine is still being
worked out,'' he said.
According to Prof. Rakesh Bhatnagar, who helped develop the new vaccine,
it is far superior to existing ''supernatant'' vaccines produced in the
United States and and in Britain, which besides being expensive, have
side-effects and call for booster doses.
''To create this improved vaccine the genes for mutated proteins were
introduced into relatively safe host organisms which produced them in
quantities sufficient for purification,'' Bhatnagar said.
Development of the new vaccine was supported by the federal government's
Department of Biotechnology over six years with an investment of 20,000
dollars and had nothing to do with the current anthrax scare.
''We were encouraged to begin the work because of an anthrax epidemic in
West Bengal state some years ago and it is just pure coincidence that we
perfected the vaccine at this juncture,'' Bhatnagar said.
The vaccine is being seen as a boost for India's vast chain of
government-run laboratories -- staffed by poorly paid scientists --
which have been endangered by the the country's decadeŻold globalisation
and privatisation plans. Profits from the new vaccine, which is expected
to run into hundreds of millions of dollars, thanks partly to the
anthrax scare, are expected to be ploughed back into the institutions
which helped develop it, Joshi said.
''We are not interested in the profits but in the benefits the vaccine
will have for mankind,'' Joshi, a well-known traditionalist and opponent
of globalisation and privatisation, said.
Sameer Brahmachari, an executive at the biotechnology department, said
the new vaccine, for which patents have been taken out, will be cheap
since no high royalties are to be paid and because of the government's
Brahmachari also said it was inconceivable that countries like the
United States have not yet developed safe recombinant technology
''They probably have them stashed away because of their strategic value
in biological warfare situations,'' he said.
Last month India cocked a snook at the global patents system by offering
to supply the United States 20 million tablets of ciprofloxacin, the
drug of choice against anthrax, at a fraction of going costs for the
Apart from the offer of cheap supply by privately-owned pharmaceutical
companies, India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, offered an outright
gift of a million dollars worth of ciprofloxacin to the United States to
tide over immediate shortages.
Since the 1970s, India has aggressively pursued a policy of weakening
intellectual property protection to ensure cheap and ready availability
of a host of drugs and foster the growth of an indigenous industry in
In 1999, the United States hauled India before the dispute settlement
tribunal of the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) and compelled it to begin work on legislation to
introduce product patents.
However, following the anthrax scare, U.S. lawmakers have been calling
for the lifting of patents on ciprofloxacin held by the German
drug-maker Bayer Corp, which do not expire till Dec. 2003.
- Copyright Inter
Press Service (IPS)