'No matter how much the political pressure is, I cannot say I will bring the Moon for you tomorrow!'
"If the government asks me whether I can produce a vaccine next month, my answer as a scientist will be, it is not possible," Dr Rakesh Mishra, director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier in the concluding segment of a two-part interview.
The Oxford vaccine trial has passed the first two phases and has moved onto Phase 3.
It means they must have given the vaccine to several thousand people, including high risk people. Maybe in three-four months's time, we will know how it works.
But the Oxford vaccine, which is a weakened and non-replicating version of a common cold virus, will be expensive in the beginning, and the other frontrunners like Moderna vaccine will be more because it is an RNA-based vaccine which requires a low temperature cold chain.
What is the difference between what Bharat Biotech is working on, and the RNA-based vaccine Oxford has?
Bharat Biotech's is not an RNA-based vaccine. They take the virus, deactivate it and inject it as the vaccine.
When the dead virus goes into the body, it will not cause any harm, but the body's immune response system will react to it.
Once the body reacts with antibodies, the person develops immunity.
But most of the vaccine trials going on all over the world are protein candidates. What Oxford is doing is one of the new ways of making a vaccine.
Some scientists have questioned why Bharat Biotech has not published any data on their animal trials...
I feel our system should make it necessary for people to share the entire data at least with the regulatory authorities.
I assume that the regulatory authorities have seen the data and based on that, they must have given permission to go ahead with human trials.
But we have no idea where they did the study and what the results are.
If the data is kept transparent, there will not be any confusion. I don't see any harm in sharing the data. In fact, it gives you more confidence in the trials.
The best thing is to keep the data in public domain.
Can tests done on animals predict how humans will react?
No. That is because animals that are used in experiments are genetically identical or isogenic. So, there will not be any variation.
But human trials are different because human beings are different.
The very basis of doing tests in animals is the assumption that if they work in animals, it can be a candidate to test on humans. But it doesn't guarantee that it will work in humans.
If you work on an animal that is a closely related to humans, like chimpanzees, the result will be closer. But you cannot do experiments on chimpanzees.
Even doing experiments on monkeys is very difficult and expensive. There are a lot of regulations in doing so.
So, most experiments are done on rabbits or mice, but they are quite distant to the human species. Tests done on them give only an indication that it might work; only an indication, no guarantee.
That's why we move to human trials and not use the vaccine immediately.
You need a lot of people as volunteers in vaccine trials, especially for the Phase 3 trials. How aware are Indians about such vaccine trials? Do they come forward voluntarily?
It is a difficult process to get volunteers for vaccine trials. Sometimes you have to pay in some form to enrol them as volunteers. You need provide some insurance cover, etc.
There are people who are willing, but they are very few. It is difficult, that's why it takes a lot of time.
If you give proper data about the earlier trials, people may come forward with more confidence.
Vaccine trials are not like drug trials.
In drugs you give to a sick person and if the person gets better, it means it is working.
In the case of a vaccine trial, you give the vaccine to a healthy individual, and wait long enough to see they don't get an infection.
It is a very sensitive issue and it is very difficult to get a large number of people to test something that is unknown.
Do you feel politics overtook science in the case of this vaccine in India?
It is for the scientific community to keep science away from politics.
Those in certain positions want solutions which they should, nothing wrong in that.
If the government asks me whether I can produce a vaccine next month, my answer as a scientist will be, it is not possible.
I don't want to give false hope to politicians, or anybody for that matter, and lose their trust when I fail to deliver.
I consider politics as a part of life. Politicians are also people like any one of us, and they want things like everybody else. They want to do something for the people, do a good job. So, they ask for things.
That doesn't mean we scientists can solve all the problems in one month or two months or one year. We need to explain what can be done and what it may take, here in terms of time.
If you give false hope, you as a scientific community will lose credibility. That's the worst thing to happen, losing credibility in front of people and politicians.
I will not accept the argument that under political pressure, you promise something which isn't possible.
No matter how much the political pressure is, I cannot say I will bring the Moon for you tomorrow!