India is developing domestic cervical cancer vaccine to save millions of lives

India’s homegrown cervical cancer vaccine, announced on Thursday, will first be made available to the country’s poorest before being exported to other countries in need.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.1 million women have died from cervical cancer in India since 2019, where it is the second most common cancer in women aged 15 to 44.

Ninety-nine percent of cervical cancer cases are linked to high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact, according to the WHO.

Announcing the first domestic vaccine against HPV on Thursday, Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh said the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of preventive healthcare in India.

The Human Papillomavirus Vaccine (HPV), which will cost 5 euros per vaccination, was jointly developed by government researchers and the Indian Serum Institute, the world’s largest private vaccine manufacturer by volume.

“Scientific endeavors sometimes do not receive the recognition they deserve and that is why this event aims to celebrate that scientific achievement,” Minister Singh said at an event on Thursday.

After 2,000 human trials, drug regulators in July awarded the Serum Institute the contract to manufacture the vaccine in India, which reports 124,000 new cases and over 75,000 deaths each year, accounting for a fifth of the global burden.

Affordable vaccine

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute, said the vaccine, called Cervavac, would be on the market by the end of the year.

The billionaire vaccine maker said Cervavac will initially be supplied by the Indian state, but private players could join from next year to expand the distribution network.

“The cervical cancer vaccine will be affordable,” Poonawalla promised at the event, adding that he plans to stock up on 200 million Cervavac syringes before distribution.

“First the vaccine would be administered in India and only then exported to other countries,” said the CEO, who is often hailed as a hero as his company accounts for the lion’s share of the 2.1 billion Covid vaccines issued so far in India.

“Pharmacists of the World”

The announcement came after UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid praised India for its Covid vaccine exports.

“India is the pharmacist of the world and has reached several countries,” said Shahid, Maldives’ foreign minister, during a trip to Delhi.

“I found that India has not only reached neighboring countries, but also Latin America and the Pacific,” he said.

“India has really shown its human face of compassion,” he added, as health experts said India may also hold the key to solving the global HPV deficiency.

low awareness

But the United Nations has warned that cervical cancer screening is low in India, where a vast network of public health centers often lacks resources.

“Although cervical cancer screening guidelines have been developed for India, coverage across the country is low,” UNFPA said in a released document.

“Pilot projects for HPV vaccination began in 2009, but were halted due to apparent side effects, which later turned out to be unrelated to HPV vaccination,” it said.

Smita Joshi, a researcher at Delhi-based public health NGO Prayas, also said poor awareness among women is a key factor.

“There is little awareness among women about the prevention of this cancer and less than 10 percent of Indian women are screened,” she said.

UNFPA has warned that without intervention, up to 5.7 million women in India will die from cervical cancer by 2070 and the number will more than double by 2120.

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