How the Pasteur Institute of India became one of the pioneers in vaccine production

With the focus now on vaccination, a look at the history and work of the Coonoor-based institute

Over the course of the pandemic, many family historians have unearthed old albums filled with sepia-tinted photographs that unveil an assortment of personalities and experiences. These photographs cut a swathe through time; like the one of my great-grandfather, a veterinarian in a tie and sola topee examining a cow sometime in the 1930s, in a livestock hospital in a hill station. My search took me to the Pasteur Institute of India (PII), Coonoor, one spring morning in April before lockdown closed the narrow window of travel in Tamil Nadu.

The statue of Louis Pasteur at the entrance to the Institute in Coonoor | Photo Credit: SATHYAMOORTHY M


An autonomous institute under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, PII stands near Sims Park, reminiscent of the British Raj. Outside its main gate is a statue of Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who developed the principles of vaccination and pasteurisation, holding aloft a replica of the jar containing the spinal cord of a rabbit infected with rabies, which he used to develop a vaccine against the disease.

At a time in the 19th Century when viper’s venom and the liver of a mad dog were considered cures for rabies’ fatal symptoms in Europe, Pasteur’s vaccine earned him a place in history and the gratitude of generations to come, when in 1885 it saved the life of young Joseph Meister who had been bitten by a rabid dog.

The library of the Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor, that houses some rare medical books | Photo Credit: SATHYAMOORTHY M


In 1902, Lily Pakenham Walsh, an Englishwoman in India infected with rabies died because she could not get the anti-rabies vaccine (ARV) in time. It set in motion a series of fundraisers and events that led to the establishment of the institute in 1907. Set up with ₹1 lakh donated to Viceroy Lord Curzon by American philanthropist Henry Phipps, the vaccine manufacturing unit was opened in Coonoor on April 25 as the Pasteur Institute of Southern India. In 1977, it became the autonomous Pasteur Institute of India.

The world of labs

With a staff strength of 303 and a sprawling campus of 16 acres scattered across the hill with enviable views of tea gardens, PII is presently helmed by veterinarian Dr S Sivakumar.

“Initially PII manufactured ARV from inactivated sheep neural tissue. In 2001, it was replaced with in-house developed inactivated, highly purified vero cell-derived ARV. From 1982, the DPT [protects against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus] DT and TT vaccines were manufactured,” says Dr Sivakumar, the Director, as we walk down a winding road to where the state-of-the-art labs, which are under qualification, are located. PII has mice and guinea pigs to test vaccine safety and potency.

One of the labs at the Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor. | Photo Credit: SATHYAMOORTHY M

“There are seven new and two modified GMP facilities equipped with automated and semi-automated equipment established with a budget of ₹137.02 crore funded by the Union Government and taken over by PII in 2019. There are three production blocks for manufacturing D, P and T bulk antigens and one formulation block for the manufacturing of final products. We also have a lab animals breeding facility, animal testing facility and warehouses,” he adds.

“PII can produce 80 to 100 million DPT group of vaccine doses per annum once the facility, equipment and process is validated. The Government has recently approved 30 acres in Coimbatore for PII to set up new BSL-2 and BSL-3 (Bio-Safety Level) facilities for the manufacture of viral, bacterial, conjugate and r-DNA vaccines to strengthen the nation’s health and vaccine security,” he says.

As we climb back up, the main building with its green-gabled roof and gold topped Baroque domes stands framed by PII’s beautiful garden flush with lilies, bougainvillea, roses and a jacaranda tree. It lends the modern facility an old-fashioned charm. The pioneering research inside its walls inspired many like my great-grandfather to pursue Genetics and work on newer trends in Veterinary Science.

The library of the Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor, that houses some rare medical books | Photo Credit: SATHYAMOORTHY M


“The building, designed by Government architect GTS Harris, now has the Director’s chamber, the library where rare books are housed in glass cabinets, purchase and quality assurance departments and a host of administrative offices. Earlier, it also had the production facility of neural tissue ARV and the quality control division,” says Dr Sivakumar.

The building bears the plaque 1906 on its portico and is well preserved with an impressive teak staircase and taciturn portraits of every man and woman who has contributed to PII. In the foyer, also hangs a framed banner of the institute with words from Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses emblazoned on it — To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield — that have inspired its work for over a century.

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