Creating Affordable Vaccines for India

Mar 01, 2008

Krish Venkat, PhD
When Varaprasad Reddy founded Shantha Biotechnics Limited in 1993, he had a clear goal. "My vision was to make cost effective and affordable vaccines and therapeutics that are within the reach of the common man," he says. Little did he realize how much of an issue money would be, as he struggled to get funding for his new company in Hyderabad, India.

"The initial years were tough," says Varaprasad. "Banks and financial institutions viewed the project skeptically and refused to fund it." Investors saw three main obstacles. First, in their view, the biotech sector in India was too immature. Second, though 45 million Indians are affected by hepatitis B, the lack of awareness of the disease and the limited use of vaccines did not offer great market potential. Third, they didn't believe an electronics engineer could successfully run a biopharmaceutical company.

So how did an electronics engineer end up founding a biotech?


It all started when Varaprasad attended an international seminar in Geneva in 1992, where he was a casual visitor along with a scientist cousin. There, he heard Western speakers say that India lagged behind other counties in following universal immunization programs. Right then, Varaprasad decided to do something about it.

When he approached a Western company for technology, however, Varaprasad heard disparaging remarks about India's inability to pay the technology fee and the inability of Indian scientists to absorb the technology. Knowing how much home-grown talent the country has, he was determined to prove them wrong, and make India more self-sufficient in the process. So the soft-spoken Varaprasad went off to look for funding.

Persistence was his primary tool. At the time, the venture capital system was not well developed in India. Undeterred, Varaprasad pitched his plan to every possible source of funding he could find. The company's big break finally came in 1994, when Khalil Ahmed, the healthcare investment representative for H.E. Yusuf Alawi Abdullah, the foreign minister of the Sultanate of Oman, met with Varaprasad to explore opportunities to invest in his company. Within a few months, Abdullah and his investment partners provided the funds for vaccine research. Abdullah also arranged for long-term loans from Oman International bank at low interest rates.

Three years later, in 1997, Shanvac-B, India's first r-DNA hepatitis-B vaccine was released to the Indian market.

Table 1. Shantha Biotechnics product portfolio: products on the market
"No looking back since," proclaims Varaprasad. His actions support his words. Shantha now has seven vaccines on the market and nine more in various stages of development (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 2. Key products in development at Shantha
Varaprasad is proud that Shantha Biotechnics is the first company in India to develop and market important vaccines using in-house expertise and recombinant technologies. "I believe strongly in Indian talent and ability," he says.

He is also very proud of the fact that his company's products are affordable for Indians. As biogenerics, they sell on the Indian market at prices much lower than similar imported products. Shanvac-B, for example, costs about one-tenth of the price of the imported vaccine for hepatitis B.