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The Hyderabad Woman Behind Corbevax, India’s Upcoming Low-Cost COVID-19 Vaccine

The Hyderabad Woman Behind Corbevax, India’s Upcoming Low-Cost COVID-19 Vaccine

Hyderabad-based Biological E, founded in 1962, is preparing to launch a low-cost COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax.

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India has placed an order to block 300 million doses of a new COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax manufactured by Hyderabad-based Biological E.

Unlike other vaccines being administered in the country, Corbevax is a “recombinant protein sub unit”. Here, the SARS-CoV2 virus’ spike protein unit is allowed to interact with the cells in our body to generate an immune response. The vaccine contains only this protein unit without the virus, and cannot cause any harm to the human body.

This vaccine development process was earlier used by Biological E to develop the Hepatitis B vaccines.

Helming the operations is 43-year-old Mahima Datla, managing director of the organisation. Despite never intending on joining the company, she has played a large role in restructuring the organisation’s objectives — from treating diseases to preventing them. In an interview with Scientist A Foundation, she said that the realisation of her company’s ability to provide life-saving medicines and vaccines in the poorest parts of the world convinced her to take on the role.

India's upcoming low cost COVID-19 vaccine
Mahima Datla, managing director of the Biological E.

We take a look at all that she and the company have achieved.

A family-owned business

Established during the Swadeshi movement of India, Biological E was founded in 1948 by Mahima’s grandfathers, GAN Raju, an agriculturist, and DVK Raju, a graduate of chemistry from University of Edinburgh. The duo started the company in Vijaywada to manufacture Heparin injections, which were used to treat blood clots.

In 1962, they went on to manufacture DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) vaccines and became India’s first private sector vaccine manufacturer, predating the Serum Institute of India by four years. By 1970, the company also became the first makers of drugs to treat tuberculosis, and vaccines for animals.

In the interview with Forbes, Mahima, who currently oversees strategic operations within the organisation, says it was never her plan to take over the family-owned business. However, at the turn of the century, everything changed for the company’s fortunes, and Mahima herself.

After completing her degree in Business Administration from Webster University, UK, she joined the family business only to gain some experience and add value to her resume.

She said, “I didn’t even have a clue about what our business was, because it wasn’t a preset idea that I would graduate and join it. I stayed back because it would look good on my resume. The plan then was to eventually pursue a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) before joining a private equity firm or a management consultancy.”

In 2001, when she joined the company, her father Vijaykumar Datla had roped in a consultancy firm named McKinsey to spruce up their business model. The restructuring allowed the company to give up some of their old business practices and move forward. She said this helped her understand the importance of her own business. It also tapped her interest in vaccines because of their profound impact on public health.

When Mahima took charge, vaccines contributed only to 10% of the company’s revenue. In 2002, after restructuring, the company started manufacturing Hepatitis B vaccines. This was chosen then because the Government of India had embarked upon a universal immunisation programme for Hepatitis B.

Today, vaccines contribute to more than 80% of the company’s revenue and Biological E is also the first pharmaceutical company in South India that supplies several essential and life-saving vaccines and medicines to global markets.

She believes her company will play a very big role in supplying solutions for COVID-19. In an interview with Forbes Magazine she said, “We have made multiple investments because science is science. As passionate as I might be about it, at the end of the day, it has to prove itself.”

In November 2020, the company began trials for Corbevax. Recently, they issued an official statement announcing their success in the first two stages of clinical trials. Now, they have received approval from the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) to begin the third phase of trials.

Here are five things to know about Corbevax

  1. In February 2020, scientists at Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine began studying, cloning, and engineering the sequence of the SARS-CoV2 virus’ spike protein.
  2. The gene was made to multiply in yeast and the protein was separated to formulate the vaccine.
  3. The raw materials used to develop the vaccines are cheap and readily available. This makes the end product cheap for the users too.
  4. In August 2020, Baylor College shared its vaccine formula with Biological E for them to conduct trials.
  5. The government provided the company with Rs 1,500 crores to conduct pre-clinical and post-clinical trials, which will be completed by July.

However, the government has confirmed that the provisional scientific data released by the company is promising and that the doses will be available for the public from September.

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