The man behind India’s Vaccine Success

B L Razdan

Dr Krishnamurthy Ella
Dr Krishnamurthy Ella

People in Nemili village in Tamil Nadu are ecstatic to have a man born in their village be one of the key people to finally bring out a vaccine for the corona virus. The small village and its residents are cheering for Dr Krishna Ella, the founder Chairman of Bharat Biotech, which received global attention after the Government of India granted the emergency use permission to its vaccine against the once in a century disease as our PM would call it. “I belong to the same village as Krishna Ella and I believe that the medicine he has found is the best cure for the virus. We are very proud of him and his efforts. We have been locked inside our homes for several months now. We really thank Ella sir,” one Dili Babu told a news correspondent. Another villager found in front of the school Dr Ella went to for his primary education said, “Dr Ella is a motivation for us, and makes us also want to go out and try new things. It is not just a proud moment for this small village but also for the entire country that he has been able to find a cure that can help the entire world.”
Courtesy Krishna Ella, India has made its first COVID-19 vaccine; the developers: the Hyderabad-based firm, Bharat Biotech, in collaboration with India’s National Institute of Virology and Indian Council of Medical Research, have received approval from the drug control authorities to conduct human clinical trials of the vaccine christened as ‘COVAXIN’. This is the same firm that created the world’s cheapest Hepatitis vaccine and was the first in the world to find a vaccine for the Zika virus. Defying naysayers and formidable competitors, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin has emerged as a potential frontrunner in the Covid-19 vaccine stakes. It is an apt metaphor for the journey of Ella, whose 25-year-old company exports vaccines to over 120 countries and has 16 products in the pipeline. However, to sustain the momentum, the company needs to expand its portfolio – and horizons.
In the 1990s, when India was making sweeping economic reforms, Krishna Murthy Ella, the 65-year-old founder of vaccines maker Bharat Biotech, gave up his cozy teaching assignment in the US and returned home. He had set a clear goal – leverage his insights as a molecular-biology researcher and find ways to make affordable vaccines in India. Dr. Ella is the Chairman & Managing Director of Bharat Biotech International Limited, which he incorporated in 1996. A gold medalist at university, Dr. Ella worked as a research faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A research scientist in Molecular Biology, he strongly believes that innovative technology in vaccine development is essential to solve public healthcare problems caused by infectious diseases. Under his leadership, Bharat Biotech has grown to become a global leader in innovative vaccine. A serial entrepreneur with a passion for innovative ideas, Dr. Ella has also ventured into veterinary vaccines, food processing, and developing biotechnology infrastructure in the country.
Dr. Ella is also involved in shaping India’s scientific education and policy through his association with several committees such as: Scientific Advisory Committee to the Union Cabinet, CSIR Governing Council, CCMB Governing Council, Research Council for CSIR National Laboratories and Board of Visitors – Global Health Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Born on March 11, 1969, to a middle-class family of farmers hailing from Thiruthani, Tamil Nadu, Krishna Murthy Ella first set out into the world of biotechnology through agriculture. In an interview with Rediff, he said, “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.” After completing his Master’s at the University of Hawaii and his Ph.D at the university of Wisconsin-Madison, Krishna returned to India in 1995, upon his mother’s insistence, who assured him to do here in India whatever he wanted to do.
After returning to India and set u 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 crores with the hepatitis vaccine rate at one dollar while the contemporaries were priced between 35 to 40 dollars. “We did not get the funding we expected; so finally we turned to IDBI who funded us with Rs.2 crores,” explains he. In just four years time, the vaccine was launched in 1999 by the most illustrious of India’s Presidents, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam. The company supplied 35 million doses for the National Immunization Program at a price of Rs. 10 per dose and also supplied 350-400 million doses to over 65 countries abroad.
“When the company makes vaccines affordable to the common man we often get accused of creating something of low quality but we make vaccines believe that technology should reach the common man and no citizen should be deprived of healthcare solutions. This is the same reason why my company has been able to produce several vaccines at affordable rate,” he explains
In 1996, Krishna Ella had also 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 a knowledge park now known as Genome Valley. The company did not take long to establish itself as a global leader in vaccine development under the leadership of Dr. Krishna Ella. He believes that innovative technology in vaccine development is very important to solve health problems caused by infectious diseases.
Bharat Biotech is now worth over Rs 500 crore and has delivered over four billion vaccine doses to underprivileged people in more than 150 developing countries through UNICEF, GAVI and other distribution channels. With more than 140 patents, the company has over 16 vaccines for bio-therapeutics, registered in 116 countries and the WHO prequalified vaccines in its portfolio. Bharat Biotech has successfully developed Rotavac, the most affordable vaccine against rotavirus induced diarrheal infections and death in the world.
Dr Ella has been awarded more than 100 National and International awards which include Bio Spectrum Person of the Year, 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, 2008; ET Now Special recognition for Healthcare Industry Award; JRD-Best Entrepreneur of the Year Award; Marico Innovation Award and University of Southern California-Asia-Pacific Leadership Award; Biospectrum Award; National Research Service Award; Rotary International Prize.
What could be the secret of such a huge success? “I live science, I breathe science, I get my energy from science,” said Dr Ella at a press conference while defending his company amid questions of emergency regulatory approval given to its Covid-19 vaccine candidate before it completed its phase 3 trials. Can there be anything more inspiring?
Genome Valley
Dr Krishna Ella, the scientist who helped in creating the COVID-19 vaccine
(The author is a formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.)