On his 75th birth anniversary (November 9, 1947 to January 26, 2020), India remembers the legendary scientist whose major contributions in vaccine development impacted the lives of millions of children in India and globally.
Even after he was appointed as the secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), his enthusiasm for the rotavirus vaccine persisted. The rotavirus vaccine strain, code-named 116E, was first identified by Dr Bhan more than three decades ago during a diarrhoea outbreak in a neonatal unit at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. He discovered that infants were shielded against subsequent, severe rotavirus diarrhoea episodes by the initial infection. He immediately recognised the potential of turning this Indian strain into a vaccine that could protect millions of children from rotavirus diarrhoea. He persevered, formed groups, created mechanisms, and oversaw the vaccine’s passage through a nascent regulatory process.
The subsequent vaccine ROTAVAC was licensed for use in India in 2014. The cost of vaccination against diarrhoea was reduced, thanks to the first locally-developed rotavirus vaccine to be prequalified by WHO. His endeavour to vaccinate children against rotaviruses, which caused more than 100,000 deaths annually under the age of five was finally a success when ROTAVAC was introduced into India’s Universal Immunisation Programme in 2015 and now introduced in several countries worldwide and saving thousands of lives globally.
Over the past two decades, he helped children of rural India by promoting primary healthcare with benefits that included programmes such as oral rehydration therapy, micronutrient supplementation, introduction of new vaccines and expanding access to already available ones. He was instrumental in bringing together various stakeholders in India for the benefit of children’s health.
He was actively involved in establishing the direction of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a public sector organisation that facilitates academic-industry research collaborations in the development of crucial biotech products. BIRAC supports the Indian industry by helping them access government support and research grants quickly and with little red tape.
As a great visionary who created a magnificent path for India’s scientific community, Dr Bhan travelled around the globe, and made significant contributions to improve the lives of children, regardless of geographical barriers. His unwavering dedication and immeasurable achievements to the field of public health have left a legacy that will continue to motivate many and foster the development of public health leaders around the world. The vaccine industry, including vaccine major Bharat Biotech that now manufactures rotavirus vaccine, salutes Dr Bhan’s indomitable spirit on his birth anniversary. The Gates Foundation had also said that he was the true pioneer in the field of science and health.
* “Prof. Maharaj K. Bhan was a visionary leader, a brilliant thinker and an inspired teacher who appreciated the need to invest broadly in biomedical research and innovation as a way to improve human health. His encouragement of young people to go into biotechnology and his ability to build effective partnership between the academic and biotech industry leaders in India and foreign collaborators began a transformation that is still driving biomedical research in India today. His own curiosity about the unusual behaviour of a diarrhoea virus in new-borns and his ability to form a unique team of collaborators led India to develop its first rotavirus vaccine that is being used widely in India and many low-income countries. The legacy of Dr M K Bhan will long endure as a model for building international partnerships while engaging the best and the brightest to attack some of India’s greatest challenges in biomedical research to improve human health. May we all learn from his success and experience.”
— Dr Roger I Glass, served as the director of the Fogarty International Center and Associate Director for International Research at National Institutes of Health, US, since 2006.
* “I have never known anyone as thoughtful, caring, visionary, collaborative, effective and productive as Dr Bhan. He was able to meld together very disparate teams of scientists, physicians and other healthcare professionals, public health workers, politicians, and businessmen and women to successfully create, then implement the approval, and finally deliver a successful rotavirus vaccine to prevent severe diarrheal disease in young children in India for Indians and other less advantaged children around the world. He was one of a kind and I miss him dearly”
— Harry B. Greenberg, MD, Associate Dean for Research, Stanford University School of Medicine.
* “Dr Bhan’s relentless efforts brought together government, non-profit agencies, international organisations and private sector companies to develop the life-saving vaccine, all in the interest of the health of the children of India and globally. He continues to be a mentor to me and a visionary scientist for India —
Dr Krishna Ella, Executive Chairman, Bharat Biotech
* “While Dr Bhan was a towering figure in health to us, at the Society for Applied Studies, he was the most gentle, wonderful, warm and genuine mentor and teacher. Some of the most important things we learnt from him went beyond science. He taught us to work together, to treat everyone with kindness and respect, to be curious and ask questions, to find innovative solutions to problems, to work hard and yet find moments of joy during work. The ROTAVAC story represents an effort to innovate in India, a celebration of team spirit, international collaboration and selfless devotion to the cause of children.”
— Dr Nita Bhandari, Senior Scientist and Director at the Centre for Health Research and Development, Society for Applied Studies.