Viruses that are used for several vaccine production need host cells to grow. Fertile chicken eggs are an effective medium for virus replication and have been in use for over 70 years.
India’s largest poultry producer Venky’s, which has almost 100% marketshare in the country for specific pathogen-free (SPF) eggs and supplies to Serum Institute of India and Hester Biosciences, has seen demand going up but not due to Covid immunisation.
“At present, SPF eggs are not being used for the production of Covid vaccines. However, research is going in this direction. The high demand is due to the rise in the cost of imported eggs and increased requirement of other vaccines, including for poultry,” Venky’s GM Prasanna Pedgaonkar told TOI. Of the 10 lakh SPF eggs being produced by us every month, a substantial quantity is used for the production of human vaccines for diseases like rabies and flu (including H1N1),” he said. For Covid vaccines which require virus replication, alternatives like cell culture are being used.
“The price of SPF eggs depends on quantity & supply frequency. The price quoted by US-based producers is $2-2.5 per egg. The landing price in India will be higher because of freight & duty. Venky’s eggs are priced at around $1 per egg,” Pedgaonkar said. Venky’s completed SPF egg capacity expansion in October 2020, according to an exchange filing in May. The company said its capacity utilization was 63% in May 2021, and it is targeting 85% utilization of the annual capacity of 1.4-crore SPF eggs in FY22 and reach 90% in FY23.
From being the first Asian company to make eggs for vaccine production in 1983, Venky’s has grown to become the world’s fourth-largest SPF egg producer. Venky’s founder B V Rao, known as the father of poultry farming in India, started a poultry vaccine production facility called Ventri Biologicals in 1979. “To avoid dependence on imports, Venky’s signed a technology transfer deal with a US company in 1983 for local production of SPF eggs. Since 1988, India has been self-sufficient in SPF egg requirements,” Pedgaonkar said, adding that Venky’s also exports SPF eggs.
Venky’s has virtually no competitors in SPF egg production in the country due to a complex and lengthy manufacturing process. “To produce an SPF poultry flock one has to select pure lines (pedigree stock) on the basis of characteristics like disease resistance, eggshell quality, feed intake, superior production, and maximum livability. These flocks then have to be cleaned against vertically and laterally transmitted poultry disease agents for three generations, which takes at least 6-7 years,” Pedgaonkar said.
During their lifetime, the birds cannot be vaccinated nor can they be treated with antibiotics. According to Pedgaonkar, the birds’ blood samples are tested every week against 42 antibodies to confirm their SPF status. Any failure leads to starting from scratch. The flocks also have special requirements like filtered air positive pressure houses, pre-heated feed, filtered water supply, and strict biosecurity.
Venky’s reported a profit of Rs 78 crore in the January-March 2021 quarter led by better realisations in the sale of chicks and broilers despite seeing some impact of bird flu in January. Its stock at Rs 2,618 is near its 52-week high level and has risen over 48% in 2021.
Pedgaonkar added that the SPF division is important for Venky’s not just from a revenue perspective but due to its potential for diversification. “We are engaged in immunisation of SPF birds against human/poultry viruses with repeated doses. The antibodies produced are then transferred to egg yolks, which are purified & used for treatment, particularly in rotavirus infection in children (which causes severe diarrhea). Studies are also going on to use this technology for the treatment of snake bites, rabies, tetanus, etc,” he said.