The virus busters
Deccan Chronicle.| Swati Sharma
Suchitra and Dr Krishna Ella have made a marked difference to India's healthcare scene with their affordable and accessible vaccines
PM Narendra Modi interacting with Dr Ella and Suchitra. Bharat Biotech has a record of innovation with over 145 global patents, a wide product portfolio of more than 16 vaccines, 4 bio-therapeutics, registrations in more than 123 countries, and WHO pre-qualifications for over 2 decades.
Spirituality can mean different things to different people. For Suchitra Ella, it is her range of life-saving vaccines that defines spirituality. Suchitra and her husband Dr Krishna Ella, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Biotech Limited, were conferred the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in India, this year.
Suchitra, who is Joint MD of the company, is a multi-tasker. "I have always been hard pressed for time. When Dr Ella was a university student for seven years, I was a working mom," the mother of two — Dr Jalachari Ella and Dr Raches Ella and a loving grandmother to Keshav Rana tells Deccan Chronicle in an exclusive interview.
Bharat Biotech is the first company to manufacture a preservative-free vaccine (Revac-B mcf Hepatitis B Vaccine), launch India’s first cell-cultured swine-flu vaccine, make the world’s most affordable Hepatitis vaccine and also the first in the world to find a vaccine for the Zika virus.
Despite the tremendous success of Bharat Biotech vaccines, including Covaxin, Suchitra and Dr. Krishna Ella come across as a completely grounded couple. They are focussed on seeing that their company’s products are the best.
Preparing the ground
Suchitra and her husband were based in the US for almost 13 years. "We went there for training, higher education and work experience. Dr Ella did his Ph.D in Molecular Biology and Genetic Science. His specialty was gene knockout." says Suchitra. He also worked on yeast molecular biology. "We wanted to come back to India and start our own company. And our first product was a yeast-based vaccine. We developed upstream work in the US and the downstream work in terms of product development, manufacturing and clinical research was done in India," reveals Suchitra who is a strong pillar of support and guidance at Bharat, overseeing a wide range of operations in the company. "We came back to India with a business plan to create a cheaper hepatitis vaccine as there was heavy demand for it in India," she adds. The project was conceptualised and started in 1996.
Vaccines for all
Bharat Biotech was started by Dr Ella as a small lab in Hyderabad. A Rs12.5 crore project proposal to supply rota virus vaccines at the rate of 1 dollar was submitted.
"From the time Bharat Biotech was founded 25 years ago, we have been primarily focusing on innovation and bringing new technology for indigenous production, which resulted in cost-effectiveness for the end user," explains Suchitra. "Bharat Biotech has launched many vaccines, which are extremely affordable. We launched ROTAVAC, a recombinant Rotavirus vaccine, in October 1998. It was priced at $1," she adds.
The company has done extensive work in almost all the areas of vaccine technology over the last 25 years. "We have worked on bacterial platform technologies. So, by and large, we have a very robust R&D in-house and we also partnered and collaborated with multiple academic and research institutions not only in India but from across the world," shares Suchitra, who is the past National Chairwoman of CII IWN and currently the Deputy Chairperson CII Southern Region( SR). Sheer hard work resulted in a slew of vaccines against viral diseases, such as the Polio Vaccine, Rotavirus Vaccine (against childhood diarrhoea), Typhoid Conjugate Vaccine, Rabies, Chikungunya, Zika, Japanese Encephalitis Vaccine and the Influenza Vaccine and the world’s first tetanus-toxoid conjugated vaccine for Typhoid.
Covid Vaccine: RACE AGAINST Time
"We also wanted to attempt a vaccine for the Coronavirus. We had the required infrastructure in our own campus as well as extensive product development background in terms of conducting human trials across the world both in children and adults," she says. And so, Bharat Biotech collaborated with ICMR to use its SARS-CoV-2 strain grow it, and inactivate it through a chemical process. The company started testing the vaccine on animals for safety and efficacy as part of pre-clinical studies. "With the support from ICMR and the regulatory body we were able to accelerate the whole process of pre-clinical studies and got into human testing by July," says Suchitra.
Talking of the speed with which the Covid vaccines were made available, Suchitra says, "The time frame to develop a vaccine is nothing less than 15 years. A lot of time, energy, data, research and science go into it. But during the pandemic, new technology had to be deployed and many of us vaccine manufacturers worldwide did not have the luxury of time. We had to come up with answers in 12 to 18 months."
The company, which had built India’s biggest BSL-3 high-containment facility for manufacturing inactivated polio vaccine, has now converted it to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine.
"As of now, Covaxin is seen to be effective on all the variants of the virus, and neutralises all of them. If it is not effective for a future strain, a new vaccine has to be developed and we are ready for that," emphasises Suchitra. "It is like influenza, where the strain changes every year, so we keep coming up with advanced vaccines."
The company is also developing an inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), as the OPV will be phased out globally by 2023.
A love for challenges
The couple has braved all odds to make Bharat Biotech great. "I have never backed off from challenges," stresses Suchitra. "Success was never my goal. I had dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Not chasing something but just doing what you are doing daily, consistently well, will surely result in success," she says.
Since its launch, the company has been scaling up its manufacturing capacity in a phased manner across its facilities in Hyderabad, Malur, Ankleshwar and Pune. "The investments and costs incurred was 100 million dollars. There was no external funding," stresses Suchitra.
She bounces her ideas off her husband, Dr. Krishna, but she says, "There cannot be one mentor. We work with many exceptional people, scientists from around the world, collaborators, partners, academics, public health experts. Science is not about one or two people. The late Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam was one of our mentors when we were a start-up; Other mentors were, Maharaj Kishan Bhan, a renowned pediatrician, clinical scientist, and former secretary to government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, and Dr. Roger I. Glass, Director, Fogarty International Center Associate Director for International Research, and Prof. Harry Greenberg, MD, senior associate dean for research at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Passion for work is something that comes naturally to Suchitra. "Right from my childhood I have always worked with passion. Even if I didn’t know a subject I would make an effort to understand, learn, adapt, absorb and get better at it. Focusing on quality to me is passion. Excellence in what we do is passion," says Suchitra.
And in her downtime, she likes to listen to Indian classical music. She grew up listening to M.S. Subbulakshmi, K J Yesudas, Lata Mangeshkar, S. P. Balasubrahmanyam and P. Susheela.
Suchitra considers family support very important, but feels the whole ecosystem has to be supportive too. "Family support is only one aspect. In our case, it’s only me and Dr Ella, so we have to be supportive of each other. We also need the support of the external, commercial ecosystems – to get the necessary permissions and manpower, for instance. The whole ecosystem matters to entrepreneurs. It has to be supportive, especially for first generations entrepreneurs, because you don’t know if you will succeed or not," she concludes.