The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT-BIRAC) has funded the establishment of a COVID-19 Vaccine Testing Center at the viral Bio Safety Level-3 (BSL-3) facility in the Centre for Infectious Diseases Research (CIDR) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
At this Centre, solutions to tackle COVID-19 – vaccines, antivirals, materials and equipment – from academic and industry partners will be tested via a fee-for-service model.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Division of Biological Sciences at IISc headed by Umesh Varshney, Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology (MCB), had commissioned the establishment of a dedicated viral BSL-3 facility at CIDR with funding from DBT-IISc partnership, to support research on highly pathogenic human viruses. The construction of the facility was completed in October 2020. It became operational in January 2021 with all the necessary Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), under the guidance of Usha Vijayraghavan, Dean, Division of Biological Sciences. Shashank Tripathi, Assistant Professor in MCB, was designated as the nodal person in charge of the facility. It was made available to academic labs (within and outside IISc) and industry, for training personnel and carrying out antiviral research.
By February 2021, Tripathi’s lab – which studies emerging viral pathogens – began working on establishing cell culture and animal models to study SARS-CoV-2 in the viral BSL-3 facility on priority. This included isolation, growth and characterisation of SARS-CoV-2 viruses from COVID-19 patient samples, and the establishment of a Syrian hamster model for evaluating COVID-19 vaccines and antivirals.
These reagents and models were used to identify SARS-CoV-2 antivirals, and evaluate the COVID-19 thermostable subunit vaccine candidate being developed by a team led by Raghavan Varadarajan, Professor at the Molecular Biophysics Unit, IISc, in collaboration with IISc-incubated startup Mynvax. In addition, Tripathi’s lab has been helping industry partners GeNext Genomics in evaluating COVID-19 antibodies, Biomoneta in testing sterilisation technologies, and Glycovax in evaluating a COVID-19 peptide conjugate vaccine in animal models.
To expand these operations, Tripathi and KN Balaji (Convenor, CIDR and Professor at MCB), applied for and received funding under the DBT-BIRAC’s Mission COVID Suraksha, which aimed to support labs with well-established models to study SARS-CoV-2.
The DBT-BIRAC support will allow the augmentation of the existing facility with high-end equipment and initial support for personnel operating the facility. Research will also be conducted to develop high-throughput assays for evaluating antivirals and vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.
In addition to SARS-CoV-2, this facility will also support the development of antivirals and vaccines against other viral pathogens responsible for diseases like influenza, dengue, chikungunya and HIV, through similar fee-for-service collaborations with academic and industry partners.
Assistant Professor, Wellcome Trust India Alliance Intermediate Fellow
Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology
Centre for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR)
Indian Institute of Science (IISc)