On Sunday, the medical community in India lost one of its doyens when Dr Maharaj Kishan Bhan, the eminent pediatrician and clinical scientist, passed away at the age of 72 after succumbing to cancer following a prolonged battle with the disease.
Dr MK Bhan was the man behind the Rotavac vaccine, the first indigenously developed rotavirus vaccine which drastically lowered the cost of vaccination for diarrhoea. A three-dose vaccination course of Rotovac vaccine for full immunisation costs just Rs 180 as compared to the two other WHO-approved vaccines available in the market which cost around Rs 2,500 per course.
As the leading cause of diarrhoea in children under five years of age, the virus causes an estimated 78,000 deaths annually in India. Working for decades, Dr Bhan brought together government, non-profit agencies, international organisations and private sector players to develop the life-saving vaccine. From the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the NIH, Research Council of Norway and Bharat Biotech, the formulation of the Rotavac witnessed the sort of institutional collaboration rarely seen around the world.
And coordinating these efforts was Dr Bhan.
“He (Dr Bhan) persevered, built teams, developed structures and guided the vaccine through a nascent regulatory process. The resulting vaccine, Rotavac, was licensed for use in India in 2014,” says Shahid Jameel, an eminent virologist, for Nature India on January 26, 2020.
This was naturally a significant moment because it is the only Indian vaccine developed in India from scratch.
The government introduced the vaccine under its public health programmes in 2016 across four states initially, and eventually all over the country in September 2019, says this report.
Dr. M. K. Bhan passed away a short while ago. A great pediatrician and humanist, foremost. A clinician scientist who pioneered a rotavirus vaccine, excellent science administrator, leader of complex missions in health and nutrition, a dear friend. Too sudden and too soon. pic.twitter.com/wp3V3ubhTC
— Principal Scientific Adviser, Govt. of India (@PrinSciAdvGoI) January 26, 2020
Life and Works
Born in 1947, Dr Bhan received his M.B.B.S. Degree (1969) from the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune and M.D. Degree from Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh.
Following stints at these institutions, he went onto conduct extensive research for his post-doc at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) studying diarrheal diseases and child nutrition to further robust public health outcomes.
“The work led to an understanding of the role of micronutrients, especially zinc, and the development of India’s first indigenous vaccine – that for rotavirus,” adds Jameel.
It was nearly 35 years ago in 1985, when Dr Bhan began his endeavour toward developing the Rotavac when he found a weakened strain of rotavirus in newborn babies admitted to AIIMS. While these infants were infected by the rotavirus, they were not getting struck with the disease. Dr Bhan isolated this strain and named it 116E.
At the same time, another public health professional in the United States, Roger Glass, of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), also began characterising similar strains of rotaviruses collected from newborns across four continents that did not result in any diseases.
After exchanging notes, both researchers characterised these strains of rotavirus and investigated whether infants infected by these strains would receive protection from subsequent severe diseases resulting from the rotavirus, reports Mint.
Going Beyond Research—Dr Bhan, a Remarkable Institution Builder
As secretary of the DBT from 2005 to 2012, he established new institutions like the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad, which conducts extensive research into vaccines, infectious diseases and drug development.
For Dr Bhan, it wasn’t merely enough to build these institutions, but linking them to other prominent ones like AIIMS, IIT-Delhi and JNU, among others in a bid to further strengthen the process of collaboration when dealing with critical issues of public health.
Another institution he helped develop was BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council), a body bringing industry and academia together on one platform, which Dr Bhan saw as critical to furthering innovation in biotechnology across India.
“His research contribution with health impact on national and developing country programs include development of a Rotavirus vaccine, Zinc as treatment of diarrhoea, low osmolarity ORS, identification of enteroaggregative E. Coli, its association with persistent diarrhoea in children and treatment approaches to this disorder,” states the WHO in its profile of Dr Bhan.
A true visionary, Dr Bhan leaves behind a legacy unmatched in the domain of public health.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)