In late 2011, a year after swine flu outbreaks in India, three vaccine manufacturers were contracted for nearly two million doses of H1N1 vaccine to the government. Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech and Panacea Biotec had obtained licenses for their products the previous year, invested in new plants and were all set to supply the doses. For the paediatric vaccine makers, this was the first big step towards adult vaccines and a whole new market. Today, those expired doses are dumped in warehouses. The plants lay idle as the companies await closure of an arbitration with the ministry of health.

Cut to February 2017.

Shoot influenza out with Portea. Take a flu shot and protect your family. More you protect, More you save. Book now and save up to 50% on family vaccination packages. To book call 1800…”.

It’s a text message from a home healthcare company. A direct-to-consumer sell no doubt, but also indicative of the fact that seasonal flu shots, for long a practice in the developed world against influenza, have arrived in India. Even if that means paying out of pocket, unlike many other countries where payers reimburse seasonal flu shots. The French drugmaker Sanofi Pasteur, which has been selling influenza vaccines in India for a decade, says the acceptance has increased in the last few years, leading to the doubling of vaccination numbers. Sanofi and others sold two million doses last year. People are now open to vaccination because sporadic flu outbreaks throw life out of gear. Like the one Tamil Nadu is currently facing and where flu vaccine stocks are being rushed creating artificial shortages in cities like Bengaluru.

Did the Indian vaccine makers, which supply 60% of the global paediatric vaccines, dump their pandemic flu plans too soon?

For all the three manufacturers, the H1N1 contract was meant to propel them into flu vaccines eventually. It turned out to be a ‘jam’. “We thought pandemic preparedness would run into billions of doses and would give us revenue to get into seasonal flu, chest infection, and similar other vaccines. But we got demotivated when the orders were arbitrarily cancelled,” says Rajesh Jain, joint managing director of Panacea.

Missed opportunity, messier experience

In April 2009, the first case of influenza A H1N1 was detected in Mexico and by year-end, 214 countries were affected by the pandemic. (Flu viruses are of three broad categories—influenza A, B or C. Of this, influenza A is the most common type. H1N1 is a variety of influenza A and has many different strains.) By May 2010, while the WHO declared the pandemic to be over, India took it seriously and made some “unprecedented and innovative interventions”.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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