For the first time in India, a domestically-made vaccine that provides protection against cervical cancer—the second-most common type of cancer afflicting women in the country—will be accessible to the majority of the population, including the poorest, according to leading healthcare professionals.
The vaccine, Cervavac, is produced by The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. The vaccine shot is expected to launch by December this year, SII chief executive Adar Poonawalla said in a statement Tuesday.
“Cervavac will make India self-sufficient in controlling female mortality caused by cervical cancer. The government of India will induct it in the national [vaccination] program in a few months,” Poonawalla said.
The vaccine protects against the Human Papilloma Virus, the main cause of cervical cancer and a potential cause of other cancers. SSI says it will be accessible to both men and women at a price range of 200 to 400 rupees—about $2.50 to $5.
Dr. Smita Joshi, leader of the SII’s HPV vaccine study, said “The vaccine will be chiefly beneficial for girls aged 9 to 15 or women who are not yet sexually active.
“If we vaccinate adolescent girls now, its effect on reducing the cancer burden in the country will be seen within three to four decades,” she said.
According to Joshi, the effectiveness of the vaccine is lower among adult women, who will require cervical cancer screenings—preferably with an HPV test—followed by appropriate management for those who test positive for sexually transmitted HPV.
Dr. Mayoukh Kumar Chakraborty, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Kolkata’s KPC Medical College & Hospital, said even though three highly effective foreign-manufactured HPV vaccines are already available in India, the cheapest of them is priced around $35 per dose.
“So, HPV vaccination was not included in the national immunization program following its introduction in 2008,” he said.
In a statement, SII said it is offering Cervavac at a lower price because of the company’s “philanthropic philosophy” and to protect under-privileged children all over the world.
According to India’s Science and Technology Ministry, cervical cancer kills about 75,000 Indian women per year.
Science and Technology Minister Dr. Jitendra Singh said that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked awareness regarding preventative healthcare and India can now afford to start developing its own vaccines.
“Therefore, vaccination against HPV is the most promising initiative in the quest to prevent cervical cancer,” he said.
Joshi, who also leads the World Health Organization’s HPV vaccine study at Jehangir Clinical Development Center in the city of Pune, said: “The awareness about cervical cancer prevention in India, which includes vaccination and cervical cancer screening, is dismally low.”
There are many misconceptions regarding the disease, even among the educated population and healthcare providers, she said.
“It is advised that adolescent girls get HPV vaccinations, and that women between the ages of 30 to 49 get cervical cancer screenings, even if they have no symptoms,” she added.
Chakraborty, the gynecologist, said the upcoming Indian vaccine is expected to be effective.
“The country’s drug regulatory authority examined the data of Cervavac’s immunogenicity trials conducted at 13 centers across India and approved the vaccine in July. It is expected to generate a robust response in 100% of the vaccine recipients, according to the third phase of the trials,” he said.
Joshi added: “Through this initiative, the goal of eliminating cervical cancer from the country may be attainable.”
Bollywood actor Manisha Koirala, who has been an ovarian cancer survivor for ten years, thanked the Ministry of Science and Technology at the event announcing the impending launch of Cervavac.
“It is a great day for women in India and the world over, as there is life beyond cancer,” she said.