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[NEW DELHI] India plans to reduce its dependence on an imported swine flu vaccine with the launch of a home-made vaccine to fight the H1N1 virus.

"The population and spread of our country is so huge that it is not advisable for us to depend on foreign countries for vaccines like this," India's health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said at this month’s (3 June) launch of 'Vaxiflu-S,' manufactured by Zydus Cadila, based in Ahmedabad in western India. 

India recorded 31,934 infections and 1,531 deaths since it reported its first case in May 2009.

To contain swine flu spread, the Indian government imported 1.5 million doses of vaccines from Sanofi Pasteur in January, but put further imports on hold till launch of the Indian product. Tony Parmar, vice-president at Zydus Cadila, told SciDev.Net the company expects to sell two million vaccine doses in the domestic market this year. 

Apart from Zydus Cadila, the health ministry has agreements with three local pharmaceutical firms to develop H1N1 vaccines. These include Bharat Biotech, Panacea Biotec and the Serum Institute of India. A fourth company, Biological E Ltd., plans to develop a genetically engineered vaccine with technology and licensing from the US firm VaxInnate Corporation.

Cadilla made the older 'egg-based' vaccine in which scientists grow the virus in live, fertilised chicken eggs and make the vaccine from it.

Parmar said that his company opted for egg-based vaccines as they are best suited for conditions in developing countries such as India, as the technology allows greater volumes of vaccines to be produced cheaply and in a relatively short time. "The technology is time-tested and acceptable in most countries so that exports will be possible," he said.

The Indian vaccine comes at a time when the WHO is increasingly in the line of fire, with claims that it overplayed the swine flu threat that ended up benefiting vaccine suppliers.

At the executive board meeting of the WHO in January, India's health secretary K.Sujatha Rao called for greater transparency in the terms and conditions under which vaccine multinationals supply vaccines. 

But director-general Margaret Chan, in a statement earlier this month (8 June), said that the WHO's decision to raise the level of the pandemic alert was based on "clearly defined virological and epidemiological criteria."