India develops indigenous cervical cancer vaccine to save millions of lives

·3-min read
AFP PHOTO / SANJAY KANOJIA

India's homegrown cervical cancer shot, announced on Thursday, will be made available first to the country's poorest before being exported to other countries in need.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.1 million women have died of cervical cancer since 2019 in India, where it's the second most frequent cancer among women aged between 15 and 44.

Ninety-nine percent of cervical cancer cases are linked to infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV), an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact, says the WHO.

Announcing the first indigenous vaccine against HPV on Thursday, science and technology minister Jitendra Singh said the Covid-19 pandemic had underscored the importance of preventive healthcare in India.

The Human Papillomavirus Vaccine (HPV), which will cost 5 euros a shot, was jointly developed by state researchers and India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest private vaccine producer by volume.

"Scientific efforts at times do not get the scale of recognition they deserve and so this event is to celebrate that scientific completion," minister Singh said at a function on Thursday.

After 2,000 human trials, drug regulators in July gave the nod to Serum Institute to make the vaccine in India, which reports 124,000 new cases and over 75,000 deaths every year and accounts for a fifth of the global burden.

Affordable vaccine

Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla said the vaccine, named Cervavac, will be launched by the end of the year.

The billionaire vaccine-maker said Cervavac would initially be supplied by the Indian state but private players could join in from next year to widen the distribution network.

"The cervical cancer vaccine will be affordable,” Poonawalla promised at the event, adding he planned to stock up on 200 million Cervavac jabs before distribution.

“At first the vaccine would be given in India and only after that will it be exported to other countries,” said the CEO, often feted as a hero as his firm accounts for the lion’s share of the 2.1 billion Covid shots handed out so far in India.

'World’s pharmacist'

The announcement came after Abdulla Shahid, president of the UN General Assembly, praised India for its Covid vaccine exports.

“India is the world's pharmacist and has reached out to several countries,” Shahid, foreign minister of the Maldives, said during a trip to Delhi.

“I have found that India has reached not only the neighbouring countries but also as far as Latin America and the Pacific,” he said.

“India has really shown its human face of compassion," he added, as healthcare experts said India could also hold the key to solving global HPV shortages.

Low awareness

But the UN has warned screening for cervical cancer is low in India, where a vast network of public health centres often lack resources.

“Although cervical cancer screening guidelines have been developed for India, coverage across the country is low,” UNFPA said in a published document.

“Pilot projects for HPV vaccination started in 2009 but were paused due to apparent side effects, which were later found to be unrelated to HPV vaccination,” it said.

Smita Joshi, a scientist with the Delhi-based Prayas public health NGO, also said poor awareness among women was a key factor.

“There is little awareness among women for prevention of this cancer and less than 10 percent of Indian women get screened,” she said.

UNFPA has warned that without intervention as many as 5.7 million women in India will die from cervical cancer by 2070 and the number would more than double by 2120.