India’s efforts to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) have received a boost as the country’s apex virology laboratory, the Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Virology (ICMR-NIV) in Pune, has managed to isolate the strains of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes the infection.
The virus strains have been isolated using the throat swabs of the initial three patients in Kerala — all students from Wuhan in China.
The isolation of virus strains is the first step towards expediting the development of drugs, vaccines and rapid diagnostic kits in the country.
Other countries such as Japan, Thailand, the United States of America and China have already isolated the virus strains. Countries isolate strains from their patients to check for variations in samples.
ICMR has been working in close coordination with the ministry of health, and other departments in its efforts to tackle the new outbreak.
“The viruses from the corona family are difficult to grow (culture); in that we have been lucky that we could culture all 11 (strains found in the three patients in Kerala) successfully. We are keeping the viruses artificially alive, growing them in cell lines,” said Dr RR Gangakhedkar, head of epidemiology division at ICMR.
“Isolating the virus will mean we could have our own vaccine in future. However, there are several research projects active globally right now that are working on war footing to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, but I would say it will take at least one-and-a-half to two-years before a vaccine sees the light of day,” he said.
According to World Health Organization (WHO) experts, about 20 vaccines are currently under development by several research groups around the world.
Dr Balram Bhargava, director general, ICMR, said, “This is just a step even though a crucial step, the final answer lies in clinical trials. We take pride in isolating the virus because we managed it successfully with barely a few patients who had tested positive for the viral disease.”
According to ICMR researchers, the virus strain that has been isolated is a “near perfect match” with the virus that was isolated by China in Wuhan.
“We examined two samples of positive patients and found out that the virus we isolated was about 99.99% match with the Wuhan virus, and can be a model for drug testing and vaccine development,” said Priya Abraham, director, NIV Pune.
“The near-perfect match also means that lessons from China can be used in India to contain the outbreak, and manage the disease effectively,” she said.
The two sequences were deposited with Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) on March 6 by India, which also attracted praise from the chief scientist of WHO, and former director general, ICMR, Soumya Sawminathan.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global alliance for developing vaccines against emerging infectious diseases, is also supporting vaccine development efforts against Covid-19.
“Two vaccines against Covid-19 are about to go into human trials soon – one by Moderna and another one by Inovio. It will take time for the vaccine to hit the markets. The Phase 1 human trials will be done to check whether the vaccine candidate is toxic, the Phase 2 trial will establish the immunogenicity, and Phase 3 will test efficacy of the vaccine in protecting against the disease in a large population before the product can be submitted to regulators for approval,” said Dr Gagandeep Kang, CEPI, vice chair.