From getting the technique right to boosting production capacity, from setting a suitable price to market launch, Germany-headquartered Merck Life Sciences played a crucial role in the story of India’s Covid-19 vaccine making.
Be it Covaxin, Covishield, Corbevax or GemCovac19 vaccine, almost every Indian vaccine maker reached out this Bengaluru-based company for assistance when they found themselves in the middle of chaos.
Aditya Sharma, head of the company’s bioprocessing business in India, told News18.com in an exclusive interview that the last two years were extremely hustling yet rewarding.
For Sharma, it was difficult to decide “who to prioritise and serve first”. “I knew people were dying and vaccines were the only solution in sight,” he said.
Leading the bioprocess business, Sharma’s endeavour was how Merck could help top pharma and biotech companies bring their product to the market faster, that too at an affordable cost while adhering to the benchmarked quality standards.
“In the last two years, we have worked with Serum Institute of India (SII), Bharat Biotech, Biological E, Gennova and all the other vaccine producers to help them bring out their (Covid-19) vaccines faster,” he said.
For instance, when technology was transferred from United Kingdom to India for Covishield, Merck helped SII create the setup here.
SII also approached Merck when they wanted to increase the production capacity of Covishield – the poster boy of India’s story of the Covid-19 vaccination drive.
“When technology transfer takes place from one country to another, there are hiccups,” Sharma said.
“It becomes very difficult when you deal with biotech products because these are live organisms. That’s where Merck works with firms and helps them enable and replicate the processes as much as possible. It will help you in producing a product which is similar to the original one produced abroad.”
In another instance, Sharma sampled a case of Bharat Biotech.
Bharat Biotech, the maker of India’s first indigenous Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin, faced several challenges in increasing production after promising huge deliveries to the central government.
“The company was looking for some equipment to increase their capacity and they had come to us. We worked with them.”
Challenges in vaccine production during Covid-19
According to Sharma, the major problem was around the supply chain. “Big manufacturers had huge demand and there was a lot of pressure from everywhere.”
The biggest challenge for companies like us, he said, was to understand “how we manage this whole demand”.
Sharma added: “It was a short time to expand capacity. There was a lot of pressure on the whole team where demand was huge, people were dying and it was imperative to provide solutions at the earliest.”
Explaining how the companies struggled to transport the vaccines to different parts across the globe, he said: “There were a lot of government-released mandates in different countries. Apart from our capacity and our vendor’s capacity, there were logistical challenges too.”
“Everything was at high risk,” he added.
Merck’s M-Lab: Centre of innovation
Not dealing with the consumer directly, Merck is involved in business-to-business (B2B) trade.
It helps top drug makers across India, such as Biocon and Lupin, in taking their products from research and development (R&D) to production to getting into the market faster. It also helps them produce the right quality of the product within the right cost framework.
For that, the company has innovated and developed technologies and services.
“For example, a company produced an injection vial. Now the product inside that vial is meeting the standard quality or not and whether it meets regulatory requirements or not will be tested in our laboratory and we will provide documents validating their product,” Sharma said.
The company’s concept of M-Lab came into existence five years ago in India. Under M-Lab collaboration centre, the company stimulates a real manufacturing environment that enables clients to collaborate with experts to evaluate and participate in hands-on demonstrations and product training.
“If you are planning a new facility and want to buy equipment, you can come and have a look at the equipment here and see how it works and helps in the process,” he added.
It also has smart technologies like Google Glass. All products are kept in M-Lab for experiential purposes.
“Many customers want to buy but are not sure… They come and experience it first-hand and are convinced to buy. It is an experience centre for our customers,” he said.
The company offers a team of experts who will help firms with possible solutions to the challenges they are facing.
India is one of the eight laboratories in a global network of collaboration centres located in important biotechnology hubs around the world, including USA, Brazil, Europe, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China. These centres are interconnected.
“Not everything is present in one lab. So, if you want to see an equipment which is not in Bengaluru lab, we have labs in Singapore to which we can connect you and show you the equipment while sit in Bengaluru.”
Filling the gap in industry-academia skill requirement
The company is now collaborating with students to enable them to experience the latest technologies available in their labs.
“Many colleges don’t have the right kind of infrastructure to give them a practical experience,” Sharma explained.
In the initial years, the firm also started with a few schools — such as filtration schools, upstream schools and downstream schools — wherein basic and advanced technologies and processes were taught.
“We still run those schools and train these freshers and mid-level managers who come here in a group of 15 or 20 people,” he said.
The company is now planning some educational programmes for academia.
“The problem is that there are gaps in academia and industry. Our endeavour is to up-skill entry-level or mid-level managers in the industry so that they can produce these products and drugs at the right cost and right quality, which they can market anywhere globally.”
The company is collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology, Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT, Mumbai) and other top colleges.
“We are making this move so that these students don’t have to be trained in the starting period of their career. Some of our experts also go to these colleges to teach them.”
Sharma also emphasised on the role of the government. For instance, he said, Covishield was actually developed by UK-based Jenner Institute.
“Similarly, many molecules have been developed which come from academia and universities and it’s the right time India should start putting efforts to do the same. We are doing our job at M-Lab with different training centres and schools,” he said.
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