As Covid-19 took the world in its grip last year, the race to manufacture vaccines to fight the deadly virus became the priority across the world. In India, one such savior came to be the COVAXIN vaccination which is produced Hyderabad-based firm Bharat Biotech which worked in collaboration with India’s National Institute of Virology and Indian Council of Medical Research, and was eventually approved by the drug control authorities in India.
So what is the story behind Bharat Biotech which also created the world’s cheapest Hepatitis vaccine and was the first in the world to find a vaccine for the Zika virus. Bharat Biotech was founded by Dr Krishna Ella who was born to a middle-class family of farmers hailing from Thiruthani, Tamil Nadu. He first set out into the world of biotechnology through agriculture.
After completing his Master’s at the University of Hawaii and his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Krishna returned to India in 1995.
“My initial plan was to keep farming after studying agriculture, but due to economic pressure, I joined Bayer, a chemicals and pharmaceuticals company as part of their agricultural division. This was the time that I got a scholarship from the Rotary’s Freedom from Hunger Fellowship and went to study in the United States.,” Dr. Ella had said in one of the interviews that appeared on Rediff.
“I did not have any intention to return to India. It was my mother who asked me to return and pursue whatever I wanted. So I came back to India with a business plan to create a cheaper hepatitis vaccine as there was a heavy demand for it in India,” he added in the same interview.
Krishna set up a small lab in Hyderabad with the medical equipment he had and that was the beginning of Bharat Biotech. The company submitted a project proposal for Rs 12.5 crore with the hepatitis vaccine rate at 1 dollar while the contemporaries were priced at 35 and 40 dollars.
“We didn’t get the funding we expected so finally we turned to IDBI bank who funded us with Rs. 2 crores,” he said. In just four years time, the vaccine was launched in 1999, by then-President Dr A. P.J. Abdul Kalam.
The company supplied 35 million doses for the National Immunisation Programme at a price of Rs 10 per dose and has supplied 350-400 million doses in total to more than 65 countries.
In 1996, Krishna Ella had put forth an idea to the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu to set up a biotech knowledge park devoid of polluting industries. Soon, he received approval and land from the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation to create the knowledge park — Genome Valley.
The first industry to be set up at the Park was Bharat Biotech’s Hepatitis vaccine plant, followed by the ICICI Knowledge Park. Today it is home to more than 100 knowledge-based industries with multinationals like Novartis India Limited, Bayer Biosciences to the Indian Giant ITC.
Dr Ella has been awarded more than 100 National and International awards which include Bio Spectrum Person of the Year in 2013, University of Wisconsin Distinguished Alumni Award (2011), Business Leader of the Year 2011, Best Technology and Innovation Award from the Prime Minister of India in 2008.
While the world searches for an answer for the COVID-19 conundrum, we take pride that Bharat Biotech has come out with a vaccine. We hope the efforts of all the scientists will be instrumental in putting an end to the pandemic.