In Chengalpattu, about 70 km from the southern Indian city of Chennai, is a cluster of buildings spread over 100 acres. These house manufacturing lines, quality-control lines and other units, all set up to manufacture vaccines. This is the Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC)—the Indian government’s one-stop solution to be self-reliant in producing vaccines to feed its national immunisation programme. A plan into which it has pumped about Rs 600 crore ($84.28 million) so far.
Only, IVC has not produced a single vaccine. In seven years.
Before we get to why, let’s go back over a decade. To January 2008.
Three Indian public sector undertakings (PSUs) were closed after the World Health Organisation questioned the quality of the vaccines produced at these centres. Following a hue and cry over the absence of a national vaccine maker, the government in 2012 announced a plan to set up a state-of-the-art unit in three years. The IVC was to be the nodal centre for supply, research and manufacture, and the supplier of 585 million doses, or three-fourths of the national immunisation programme’s vaccine requirement.
India, in 2017, under its Rs 9,451 crore ($1.44 billion) national immunisation programme, allocated approximately $25 per child for vaccines and operational costs. Children born in India are vaccinated for 12 diseases—tuberculosis, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, hepatitis B, diarrhoea, Japanese encephalitis, rubella, pneumonia, and meningitis. Of these, the vaccines the government requires the most are Oral Poliovirus vaccine (130 million doses) and Tetanus vaccine (110 million doses). The private vaccine industry estimates that, on an average, the government has a requirement of 120 million doses of each vaccine based on a birth cohort of 28 million and number of doses. A birth cohort is a group of people born during a particular period or year.
The plan for an IVC made sense then.
Except the government’s choice to carry out this ambitious plan was…a condom-maker with no experience in making vaccines. State-owned HLL Lifecare’s vaccine unit, HLL Biotech Ltd (HBL), was entrusted with constructing the IVC in three years. This despite protests from political and public parties.
An epidemiologist with Shimla’s State Institute of Health and Family Welfare, Dr Omesh Kumar Bharti, who has worked on anti-rabies vaccines, said, “The IVC was opposed by many people.