Zydus Cadila Healthcare was one of the first to announce plansfor a Covid vaccine, more than a year ago, so its application for emergency approval for the 3-dose ZyCov-D last month is long overdue. The company has been cautious, but innovations like the needle-free applicator, which introduces the vaccine through the skin instead of the muscle, will probably make the delay worthwhile. Zydus has also tested the vaccine on adolescents in the 12-18 age group, a vital factor when we are on the edge of a third wave, where children are likely to be affected.
Zydus is the only Gujarat based company to seize the initiative in the wake of the pandemic. The truth is, Hyderabad’s pharmacompanies have moved far ahead in research and development (R&D).
Gujarat lays claim to being home to the country’s biggest pharma hub and Ahmedabad is its centre. Many years ago, I remember doing an article on the magnificent R&D centresbeing set up by Ahmedabad-based pharma majors like Zydusand Torrent Pharmaceuticals, which were being designed and executed by world class architects. Today, however, Hyderabad has emerged as the go-to hub for pharma R&D, with companies like Alembic, one of the oldest and most established pharmaceutical companies of Vadodara, opting to invest there instead of Gujarat.
Why has Ahmedabad lost out to Hyderabad in pharma R&D?
When I put the question to Dr Raja Smarta of Interlink, a Mumbai-based pharma consulting firm, he said it’s because Gujarat’s pharma industry is more focused on formulations, the end-product of drug manufacture. Hyderabad, on the other hand, has always been known for the bulk drugs which are the raw material for formulations. As a result, Hyderabad’s companies are more focused on R&D. Today, the city is a biotechnology and vaccine hub as well.
Dr Krishna Ella, the managing director of Bharat Biotech, inventor and manufacturer of Covaxin, is not a native of Hyderabad. He is a Tamilian who worked in Bangalore for a while before receiving a scholarship to study at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he did his PhD in microbiology. He returned to India after a stint as a researcher at University of South Carolina and was the first to set up operations in Genome Valley, Hyderabad’s biotechnology hub. This was in 1996. Over the years, Bharat Biotech has manufactured vaccines for malaria, typhoid and diarrhoea. The company has recently bought up a facility for making the rabies vaccine from GSK. And of course, it was the first to make an indigenous Covidvaccine, which was administered to Prime Minister Modi as a symbol of atma-nirbhar Bharat.
The patriotically named Bharat Biotech, which is now developing a nasal version of its vaccine, is not the only Hyderabad company to lean in during the Covid pandemic. Another Hyderabad based biotech company, Biological E, is gearing up to launch its own vaccine in the months to come. This vaccine promises to be the most affordable yet. Thenthere’s Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, which is leveraging its ties with Russia’s Gamaleya Institute to bring the Sputnik V vaccine to India.
Bharat Biotech, Biological E, Dr Reddy’s are the vaccine heroes, the pharma equivalent of stars like Akshay Kumar, RanbirKapoor and Ranvir Singh. In Ahmedabad we have CadilaHealthcare, a sort of Kartik Aaryan, showing much promise but not quite there yet.