Pioneer of leprosy vaccine reflects on how he almost missed
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Mycobacterium indicus pranii (MIP) — the organism that drives the world’s first leprosy vaccine, developed in India and launched as a pilot project last week — owes the pranii in its name to Gursharan Prasad Talwar, considered by many to be the father of immunology in India, and to the National Institutes of Immunology (NII) of which he was founder-director.

However, had it not been for one day in 1970, Talwar says he would have remained content working in the biochemistry department of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and missed his date with public health history. That day, a group of immunologists from the World Health Organisation had walked into his AIIMS office, urging him to take over as founder-director of the National Institute of Immunology, an autonomous research institution that would cater to the immunology needs of southeast Asia.

Talwar wasn’t keen. But they asked him, ‘Do you know India has the world’s largest number of leprosy patients? Do you expect Americans to come and solve your problems?’ . It was then that he immediately signed the papers and agreed to join NII though he knew nothing really about the disease. He was not a doctor.

It was during his stint at NII that the vaccine was first developed. Field trials for the vaccine were launched last week in four districts of Gujarat and two of Bihar, more than a decade after the Indian Council for Medical Research completed efficacy trials and Cadilla acquired a licence for largescale manufacturing of the vaccine. India had for long been sceptical about the homegrown vaccine but with new cases being detected every year — and plateauing at around 1.27 lakh annually — the government had to give it a shot. If the field trials are cleared, the vaccine will be part of the National Leprosy Eradication Programme.