November 2001

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Vol. I Number 5

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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 low wages.

Brahmachari also said it was inconceivable that countries like the United States have not yet developed safe recombinant technology vaccines.

''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 antibiotic.

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 generic pharmaceuticals.

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)