India's flagship health and sanitation campaigns can be built up to combat the coronavirus as they have led to a greater awareness about personal hygiene and sanitation among the people in the country, a leading Indian-origin scientist in Australia has said.
S S Vasan, who is leading a team to create a vaccine against COVID-19 at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), suggested building up the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and Ayushman Bharat Yojana along with hand washing and personal hygiene to manage the COVID-19 crisis.
He said that there is now a greater awareness in India on matters such as hand washing, personal hygiene and sanitation.
"If we build this on top of excellent foundations such as Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and Ayushman Bharat Yojana, we can help reduce the burden of infectious diseases and free up resources to tackle non-communicable diseases that will become increasingly significant as the population starts to age," Vasan said.
The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (clean India campaign) is aimed at eliminating open defecation in rural areas during the period 2014 to 2019 through mass scale behaviour change, construction of household-owned and community-owned toilets and establishing mechanisms for monitoring toilet construction and usage.
The Ayushman Bharat Yojana is a part of the Indian government's National Health Policy which aims to provide free health coverage to the poor and vulnerable population.
Vasan said that Australia has been successful in flattening the curve of the virus and was now in a good position to extend its support to India's ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the deadly disease.
"It is a two-way process and Australia can also learn from the country's experience," Vasan said.
"There are ongoing conversations, for instance, with India's Department of Biotechnology regarding in vitro neutralisation assays, animal models and genomics, specifically in relation to this pandemic. CSIRO and CSIR-IGIB (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) also have a joint project on SARS-CoV-2 bioinformatics," he said, adding the two nations were natural partners.
Vasan said that there was a lot of scope to expand the links and to be a partnership of equals, underpinned by research and academic collaboration on topics of mutual priority.
"For instance, there is a lot of scope to expand 'defence' to include health and biosecurity, especially risk evaluation and disease preparedness," he said.
Stressing on a global effort to stand united to defeat the virus, Vasan said, "we mustn't squander a unique opportunity to rethink and act on how we prevent and prepare for the next big outbreak."
"If we fail to grasp this 'One Health' approach, if we don't change the way we interact with animals and the environment, we will see more pandemics like COVID-19. It is a matter of when, not if," the scientist said.
Vasan and his team are currently running the world's first multi vaccine animal efficacy studies in a high-security lab here at CSIRO, the country's leading scientific agency.
According to him, there are reportedly over 115 vaccine candidates, 8 funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), four of which are in Phase 1 clinical trials in humans.
"We are evaluating Inovio Pharmaceuticals' DNA vaccine and the University of Oxford's viral vectored vaccine as one dose versus two doses. Although the Oxford vaccine is envisaged by the University to be given as an injection, I am checking if administering it through the nose offers better protection," he disclosed.
"This work builds on my team being the first to initiate preclinical research outside of China by making sufficient stocks of the virus, and being the first to show that ferrets are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2," he added.
The CSIRO team is in the global race to develop the vaccine in shortest time frame which generally take at least 10-15 years of collaborative efforts to progress from discovery to licensure.
"We are trying to achieve this in 10-15 months without compromising on quality, rigour, safety, or staff health and wellbeing. Our results will be valuable to regulators who are looking for efficacy data in animals and any safety signals, before approving candidate vaccines that pass Phase 1 human trials to proceed to Phase 2 and Phase 3," he said.
Serum Institute of India has announced a partnership with the University of Oxford to mass produce the vaccine which is being evaluated in Vasan's laboratory (in ferrets) and at the US Rocky Mountain Laboratories (in primates).
According to the journal Nature Biotechnology, India is making progress in discovery too, with Zydus Cadilla reportedly working on an electroporated DNA vaccine (similar to Inovio's candidate that I am evaluating) as well as a live attenuated vaccine.