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The Man Behind India’s First COVID-19 Vaccine is a Tamil Farmer’s Son

The Man Behind India’s First COVID-19 Vaccine is a Tamil Farmer’s Son

The acclaimed scientist returned from the US to set up India’s ’Genome Valley' - one that’s given the medical world many firsts.

India has made its first COVID-19 vaccine.  

The developers of the drug, the Hyderabad-based firm Bharat Biotech in collaboration with India’s National Institute of Virology and Indian Council of Medical Research, have received approval from the drug control authorities to conduct human clinical trials of the vaccine christened ‘COVAXIN’.

This is the same firm that created the world’s cheapest Hepatitis vaccine and was the first in the world to find a vaccine for the Zika virus.

From Farming To Biotechnology

Dr Krishna Ella, the scientist who helped in creating the COVID-19 vaccine

Dr Krishna Ella was born to a middle-class family of farmers hailing from Thiruthani, Tamil Nadu. He first set out into the world of biotechnology through agriculture.

In an interview with Rediff, Krishna, who is currently the Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Biotech International Ltd. (Bharat Biotech) said, “My initial plan was to keep farming after studying agriculture, but due to economic pressure, I joined Bayer, a chemicals and pharmaceuticals company as part of their agricultural division. This was the time that I got a scholarship from the Rotary’s Freedom from Hunger Fellowship and went to study in the United States.”

After completing his Master’s at the University of Hawaii and his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Krishna returned to India in 1995.

In the same interview, Krishna points out, “I did not have any intention to return to India. It was my mother who asked me to return and pursue whatever I wanted. So I came back to India with a business plan to create a cheaper hepatitis vaccine as there was a heavy demand for it in India.”

Krishna set up a small lab in Hyderabad with the medical equipment he had and that was the beginning of Bharat Biotech. The company submitted a project proposal for Rs 12.5 crore with the hepatitis vaccine rate at 1 dollar while the contemporaries were priced at 35 and 40 dollars.

“We didn’t get the funding we expected so finally we turned to IDBI bank who funded us with Rs. 2 crores,” he explains. In just four years time, the vaccine was launched in 1999, by then-President Dr A. P.J. Abdul Kalam.

The company supplied 35 million doses for the National Immunisation Programme at a price of Rs 10 per dose and has supplied 350-400 million doses in total to more than 65 countries.

Genome Valley – Giving the Medical World India’s First COVID-19 Vaccine

Genome Valley

In 1996, Krishna Ella had put forth an idea to the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu to set up a biotech knowledge park devoid of polluting industries. Soon, he received approval and land from the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation to create the knowledge park  — Genome Valley.

The first industry to be set up at the Park was Bharat Biotech’s Hepatitis vaccine plant, followed by the ICICI Knowledge Park. Today it is home to more than 100 knowledge-based industries with multinationals like Novartis India Limited, Bayer Biosciences to the Indian Giant ITC.

“Genome Valley has become very important as far as biotech parks are concerned in India. It has catalysed the very idea of such parks which are now seen in Bengaluru and Pune,” he explains.

“But the first, second and third positions in knowledge-based industries are given to the United States mainly because public problems are not given due importance in the academic research done in India. This is an area that we must focus on,” he adds.

Bharat Biotech

Bharat Biotech has now become the first company to manufacture a preservative-free vaccine (Revac-B mcf Hepatitis B Vaccine), launch India’s first cell-cultured swine-flu vaccine, manufacture the world’s cheapest Hepatitis vaccine and was the first in the world to find a vaccine for the Zika virus. The company has also in total supplied 3 billion doses of vaccines globally.

Dr Ella has been awarded more than 100 National and International awards which include Bio Spectrum Person of the Year in 2013, University of Wisconsin Distinguished Alumni Award (2011), Business Leader of the Year 2011, Best Technology and Innovation Award from the Prime Minister of India in 2008.

“When the company makes vaccines affordable to the common man we often get accused of creating something of low quality but we make vaccines believe that technology should reach the common man and no citizen should be deprived of healthcare solutions. This is the same reason why my company has been able to produce several vaccines at an affordable rate,” he explains.

While the world searches for an answer for the COVID-19 conundrum, we take pride that Bharat Biotech has come out with a vaccine. We hope the efforts of all the scientists will be instrumental in putting an end to the pandemic. 

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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