Haffkine had developed a cholera vaccine in 1892 and tested it on himself. He wanted to conduct human trials in areas that regularly experienced cholera outbreaks. He was then based in Paris, working at the Institut Pasteur. Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, then British Ambassador in Paris and Viceroy and Governor General of India between 1884 and 1888, suggested that Haffkine try his vaccines in Calcutta.
Haffkine came to India, joined the Indian civil service and worked in Calcutta for over two years. He vaccinated several tens of thousands of people during that time, facing the same challenges of hesitation and hearsay that Covid-19 vaccinators faced last year. According to his observations, his vaccine could reduce cases but not mortality. He returned to the UK in 1895 with his work on cholera research remaining incomplete.
However, with the plague outbreak in 1896, the British colonial government asked for his help and he came to Mumbai. He was tasked with making a plague vaccine, running against time and with minimal resources. Haffkine’s vaccine was ready in the first quarter of 1897.
Once the effectiveness of his vaccine was established, hundreds and thousands of Indians were vaccinated because the plague refused to subside. Although there was no CoWin-like system to track the vaccination process, it is widely believed that Haffkine’s work saved countless Indian lives. He was appointed head of the Plague Research Laboratory, housed at Government House in Parel, then Bombay.
Unfortunately for Haffkine, the vaccine came under criticism and scrutiny when in 1902, nineteen people lost their lives after vaccination, contracting tetanus. The investigation of what exactly was wrong with a particular batch of vaccine went on for years. In the meantime, Haffkine lost his job and was not involved in active public service. It was not until 1907 that the inquest exonerated him after a detailed investigation. Throughout these years the vaccine itself was not withdrawn and the Indians continued to be inoculated with the same vaccine and perhaps saved from the disease which continued to make its way in different parts from the country.
Haffkine retired from the Indian civil service in 1915 and died in 1930 in Lausanne, Switzerland. From the time the vaccine was produced in 1897 until 1925, the laboratory he established in Bombay shipped over 2.6 million doses of this vaccine. This Parel laboratory was named the Haffkine Institute in 1925.
The Haffkine Institute, now a state government institute, continues to work on several critical vaccines to this day. It was also chosen as one of the production expansion sites of Made in India Covaxin during the Covid-19 pandemic.
From Haffkine to the Poonawalla family, Maharashtra has a rich history of world-class vaccination efforts. Just as befits the state’s rich industrial, scientific and commercial heritage.