File image of CCMB director Rakesh Mishra | ThePrint
File image of CCMB director Rakesh Mishra | ThePrint

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Hyderabad: The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) is setting up an exclusive ‘RNA platform’, a facility to develop mRNA (messenger RNA) technology to be used in Covid vaccines, according to the institute’s director Rakesh Mishra. 

The development comes amid talks that CCMB is holding with Moderna to manufacture the American biotechnology firm’s vaccine in India.

Moderna’s vaccine is based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology and has shown nearly 95 per cent efficacy against the novel coronavirus, similar to pharma giant Pfizer’s vaccine, which uses the same approach. 

In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Mishra said this is the first time that such a lab, the RNA therapeutic and vaccine platform, is being set up at the institute and that it has received in-principal approval from its parent body, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). 

He added that it is being set up to work on RNA technology for its usage in vaccines, a significant part of which would be based on the techniques developed by Moderna.

“It is not like we have not worked on RNA technologies before but developing such technology for a vaccination is the first time for the institute,” Mishra said. “We’ve started our work already. In 3-4 months we will be at a stage where we will be handing over the technology to our manufacturing partners.”

CCMB’s parent organisation, the CSIR, has been in talks with Moderna to understand the ‘science’ behind the vaccine and how it works on the human body, CSIR Director General Shekhar C. Mande had told ThePrint last month. 

Also read: Coronavirus found in air samples of Covid hospital wards, CSIR-CCMB study says

A four-module facility

The latest RNA facility, being set up at the Hyderabad-based CCMB, will have four modules put together. 

Mishra said the first module is for the design of the gene and producing the DNA template in large quantities, while the second would be to work on converting the DNA to RNA, which is primarily what the vaccine would be based on. 

The third module is to package the RNA into what are called lipid nanoparticles (LNP), the stage it becomes ready for inoculation. The fourth module is to check if the vaccine is ready to be injected into animals and if it is giving the desired result.

Following the successful completion of the process of the four modules, the technology SOP will be handed over to manufacturing partners for large-scale production, Mishra said, adding at least “four commercial players” have also been involved in the discussions for Moderna’s vaccine production. 

Companies such as Mumbai-based Tata Sons, Wockhardt, have reportedly expressed interest in commercial collaborations. ThePrint had earlier reported that the Hyderabad-based Indian Immunologicals Ltd (IIL) has also been in talks with Moderna for the same. 

Also read: Pfizer, Sputnik V, or Moderna — people are ‘brand conscious’ when choosing Covid vaccine

‘CCMB to develop at least 3 different vaccines’

According to Mishra, a team of five experts would work in CCMB’s RNA facility with the aim to develop at least three different Covid-19 vaccines. 

The first would largely be based on Moderna’s technique while the remaining two will focus on the variants prevalent in India. 

“Why Moderna is preferred is that their technology is not patent protected and information is accessible as of now. Although the RNA technology is not something new, the company will have accurate details- and we will be discussing with them to access the same,” Mishra said. “We also want to do something exactly the same way what Moderna has done to cut down on the trial and error methods.”

Unlike traditional vaccines that use attenuated or inactivated viruses, the mRNA technology, by providing a genetic code, instructs the human body cells to provide a certain type of protein that would help the body to thwart the virus and develop immunity. 

‘mRNA safer, cheaper vaccine’

The CCMB director said the mRNA-based vaccine is easy to manufacture, can be easily modified according to requirement and is cheaper. He added that these vaccines could prove to be more effective than viral vaccines and that they may not pose any major long-term side effects in the human body.

“When you’re making mRNA, you’re asking the body to produce the protein and you’re not making it externally. You’re just giving the body the message in the same way a DNA vaccine is doing,” Mishra said. “So in a way, this is a much personalised vaccine where individual bodies are making the same protein depending upon their body culture.”

According to Mishra, if a certain part of protein needs to be changed while using the mRNA technology, it can be done in weeks unlike in other methods where it takes longer time. 

“For instance, there is no cell culture in RNA; everything is done in a test tube so modification is easy,” he said. “What cell culture can do in days, this can be done in hours.”

Going forward, Mishra said CCMB’s RNA therapeutic platform would also be used to work on combating genetic disorders that, according to him, is a major problem in India.

Also read: States need to address doubts & confusions to tackle vaccine hesitancy, says health ministry


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