Book House

How India became a global supplier of affordable vaccines?

How India became a global supplier of affordable vaccines?
How India became a global supplier of affordable vaccines?
  • The book “Indian Innovation, Not Jugaad: 100 Ideas that Transformed India” by Dinesh C. Sharma unpacks 100 ideas that transformed a young democratic republic into a complex and thriving nation of a billion-plus people.

  • The book discusses the disruptions that revolutionized the way things were done in a particular sector and context. Covering policies, concepts, and institutions in areas such as, but not limited to, science, healthcare, education, governance, business, grassroots movements, agriculture, fashion, law and others, this is a book one needs to read to better understand India.

  • Propulsively put together, with effortless prose, Sharma’s writing, with his decades’ long journalistic understanding of science, technology, environment, and communities, is teeming with stories and anecdotes of innovations that went on to change the lives of Indians forever.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Vaccines are considered the most cost-effective means of preventing a range of diseases. Nearly 60 per cent of children born all over the world get immunized with one or more life-saving vaccines manufactured in India. Some of these vaccines cost less than what a cup of tea costs in India. The footprint of India-made vaccines spans over 160 countries, with global agencies like WHO and UNICEF procuring vaccines from India. During the coronavirus pandemic, Indian companies produced millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines developed by them as well as those licensed by foreign companies.

India’s health indicators at the time of the Independence were poor – the highest number of smallpox cases were reported from India, epidemics of cholera and plague were frequent and the country did not have the resources and capacity for universal immunization of children. Vaccine production units existed for diphtheria, tetanus and polio but they were not adequate to meet the demand. The infrastructure and trained manpower needed for immunization campaigns were yet to be developed. The first mass campaign for the BCG vaccination could be launched nationwide only in 1956. Till 1985, the measles vaccine was being imported. It was only in 1991 that India became self-sufficient in vaccine production and subsequently began emerging as a player in the export markets. In 2020, India was not only self-sufficient in vaccines for domestic use but is a global supplier of affordable vaccines.

The transformation is a combined result of investments in R&D, manufacturing facilities, manpower training and enabling government policies. On top of all this is the innovative streak of Indian vaccine manufacturers – the technique of reverse engineering similar to the one practised by drug manufacturers. Indian companies targeted traditional vaccines which were already proven but whose patents were expiring and began manufacturing them at lower costs. Indian companies could achieve economy of scale, given the large domestic market with vaccines for the Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) of the government. It caters to the needs of vaccination for over 26 million new-born children and 30 million pregnant women every year.

Over the years, Indian firms have demonstrated how quality vaccines can be manufactured at low prices due to the availability of low-cost highly skilled manpower, multiple starting materials, small animals needed for quality testing, and efficient engineering production system for sterility. The development cost is lower as highly skilled people, such as microbiologists, chemists, chemical and biochemical engineers, are abundantly available. Much of this is a result of investments made by government agencies such as the Department of Biotechnology and the ICMR. The companies also operate at lower margins to serve the domestic market at affordable prices. In addition, Indian companies have acquired the technical capacity for services necessary for good manufacturing without any contamination. In addition to keeping the costs low, Indian vaccine makers have been trying out new ways to improvise the vaccines, such as tweaking the formulations so that the vaccines could withstand hostile climates without losing efficacy or working around an injectable vaccine to produce an oral version.

As a result, nine Indian companies have been certified by WHO for the supply of quality vaccines that can be purchased by international agencies. India thus is on the top of the list with a maximum number of such vaccine suppliers. Together, Indian companies supply vaccines worth one billion dollars a year to the world. The list of vaccines includes traditional ones, such as the DPT vaccine for protection from diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus or TT for tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), Hib (to protect against Haemophilus influenzae type B disease), typhoid and rabies vaccines; as well as several modern vaccines like Hep-B, rotavirus, cholera and varicella vaccines.

Ironically, while Indian companies produce affordable vaccines for the world, India has one of the highest rates of childhood mortality due to diseases that are preventable with vaccines. Though the situation has been improving, it is a matter of concern. Vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine sentiments have also been reported from some parts of the country.

Key Players

Vaccines are lifesaving but many of us may not know that animals play a big role in the manufacture of some of these vaccines. For instance, horses are used as antitoxin factories as they produce antibodies for various toxins which then go into the making of vaccines. It was this fact that lies behind the founding of the Serum Institute of India Private Limited – a Pune-based company that is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. The family of Dr Cyrus Poonawalla was into horse breeding and racing. During a casual chat with a veterinarian at his stud farm in Pune in the 1960s, Poonawalla came to know that discarded horses from the farm were donated to the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, which used horse serum to make vaccines. He then thought he could do the same and manufacture vaccines. That’s how he founded the Serum Institute. The Mumbai institute, incidentally, is the oldest vaccine facility in India which was founded by Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, a Russian scientist and a student of Louis Pasteur, who had developed cholera and plague vaccines. Poonawalla founded the Serum Institute in 1966 to manufacture immuno-biologicals which were being imported at high prices. He then diversified into tetanus anti-toxin and anti-snake venom serum, and DPT as well as MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) groups of vaccines. In 2020, the Serum Institute was producing 1.5 billion doses of vaccines and has a stockpile of several million doses of lifesaving vaccines to deal with outbreaks.

In the 1990s, biotech entrepreneurs entered the field to make modern vaccines based on recombinant DNA technology. K.I. Varaparasad Reddy, an electrical engineer, founded Shantha Biotech in 1993 to make an affordable Hepatitis B vaccine. He sold the vaccine at one-tenth of the international prices, challenging multinational companies. Another Hepatitis B manufacture that came up in Hyderabad around the same time was Bharat Biotech – founded by Dr Krishna M. Ella in 1996. It has also developed rotavirus, typhoid, H1N1 and other vaccines indigenously. It shows that Indian firms are good not just in reverse engineering but in developing new vaccines through innovation.

How India became a global supplier of affordable vaccines?

Excerpted with permission from Indian Innovation, Not Jugaad: 100 Ideas that Transformed India, Dinesh C. Sharma, Roli Books. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


The Dispatch is present across a number of social media platforms. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for exciting videos; join us on Facebook, Intagram and Twitter for quick updates and discussions. We are also available on the Telegram. Follow us on Pinterest for thousands of pictures and graphics. We care to respond to text messages on WhatsApp at 8082480136 [No calls accepted]. To contribute an article or pitch a story idea, write to us at [email protected] |Click to know more about The Dispatch, our standards and policies   
How India became a global supplier of affordable vaccines?