‘If India can, why can’t we?’: Prof. Neelika Malavige on SL’s capacity to produce a Covid-19 vaccine

To date, Covid-19 clings on to our world, constantly evolving in its form and severity, claiming more lives and good hope with every passing day. 

Amidst traditional kottamalli cures and “magic Covid healing potion” controversies, the only promising silver lining in this dark and foreboding cloud seems to be the impending vaccines that are being developed globally, aiming to better manage this pandemic situation.

Following continuous discussions, government officials have confirmed the reception of over 500,000 doses of Oxford AstraZeneca’s Covishield, a gift from neighbouring India on 28 January 2020 (Thursday). A donation of a further 300,000 doses of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm is to follow shortly. 

In light of the conversation surrounding Covid-19 vaccines, The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to one of Sri Lanka’s frontline researchers in this regard, University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ) Faculty of Medical Sciences Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine Prof. Neelika Malavige. 

“What is remarkable is how India rose to the occasion and showed that it was indeed a superpower. It developed its own vaccine and is one of the biggest manufacturing sites (Serum Institute) for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine”  USJ Faculty of Medical Sciences Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine Head Prof. Neelika Malavige

Give us a brief introduction of yourself, what you do, and your current endeavours with regard to research on Covid-19. 


I am a professor at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine and I have a keen interest in viral immunology. I did my PhD at the University of Oxford in this area, and I am extremely passionate about how viruses cause harm to humans and how our wonderful immune systems fight them.

Our research has been focusing on identifying the type of immune responses that are important to reduce the disease severity of Covid-19. We have been working on dengue for over 15 years and have made important breakthroughs in that venture. 


What is the current state with regard to the Covid-19 vaccination in Sri Lanka?


The vaccine seems to be the only option to see an end to the pandemic. However, currently most of the vaccines only reduce symptomatic illness, and we have no data to know if they reduce transmission as well.
We also see the emergence of variants which might escape immunity induced by vaccines. There are many questions we don’t have answers to. However, if the vaccines indeed reduce disease severity and people won’t die of Covid-19, or won’t develop severe illness, then we have achieved a lot. We can then move onto reducing or halting transmission.


What are the key crucial pointers and observations in your research so far on Covid-19?

We have been studying the Sri Lankan viral strains from the onset. The current circulating strain that emerged from late September is one not previously seen in Sri Lanka. However, with the emergence of new variants from several countries, it is very important to watch out for such variants that could be introduced to Sri Lanka. We are sequencing much more and more frequently since the beginning of this year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is funding this research.
We are also studying how long immune responses last following natural infection and what type of immune responses are protective. These are crucial questions to answer if we are to move forward with Covid-19.


In a news statement, you have claimed that Sri Lanka has the resources and the capacity to develop our own vaccines. Could you please elaborate?


When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, all countries started with equal footing. Many developed countries, of course, have very successfully developed new diagnostics, new vaccines, etc.
What is remarkable is how India rose to the occasion and showed that it was indeed a superpower. It developed its own vaccine and is one of the biggest manufacturing sites (Serum Institute) for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
If India can, why can’t we? It is quite disheartening to note that although we have the human resources to do this, there is a lack of other resources, and mainly, the commitment to make it a reality. 


If we have the resources to do so, what is standing in the way of developing our own vaccine?

I think it’s important to point out that apart from a vaccine, drug development is also extremely important. If I talk about drug development, we again have the expertise to identify potential drug candidates (Western or Ayurvedic drugs) and test their efficacy. But we need a “Biosafety Level 3” (BSL-3) lab to do so. Me and several others have worked for many years in such facilities. But there is not a single BSL-3 lab in the whole country. So many ayurvedic physicians have also contacted us, to see if their potential drug candidates are working. But how can we (test it), when we don’t have such a lab?

The case remains the same for vaccines. If you are unable to culture the SARS-CoV-2 virus, then we can’t think of developing a vaccine. We simply lack the infrastructure here.

There are many other obstacles, but at least we have been able to overcome them with difficulty. There is very limited focus on research and development in Sri Lanka. The policymakers don’t seem to understand how it can benefit everyone and the economy as well.

Additionally, although we boast of a high literacy rate, our scientific literacy is very poor. In schools, children are taught to memorise and churn out what they have studied rather than to question and develop critical thinking. We are seeing the results of this during this pandemic, where people just believe anything being told on mainstream media and social media without questioning what they see.

What kind of assistance is needed for our researchers in the potential development of our own vaccine?

Policymakers don’t seem to understand how research and innovation can greatly help the economy. I think it’s important for them to understand who can do what and invest accordingly. It’s not just about the vaccine. It’s also about developing diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines. This is not just for Covid-19, but for many other illnesses in general.

Do you think developing such a vaccine would have positive implications in the long run that transcends being just a solution for Covid itself?

I definitely think so. There are so many (people) who want to develop and do something good for the country. The country does not use them, nor are they given the due recognition.