Medical workers collecting samples for Covid-19 in New Delhi | Representational Image | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
Medical workers collecting samples for Covid-19 in New Delhi | Representational Image | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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India’s life sciences sector, including pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices, clinical research, and digital health, has been at the forefront of our battle against the coronavirus pandemic. Domestic pharma companies are developing drugs and vaccines. Some have also developed tests and are rolling out testing services. India’s hydroxychloroquine is being exported around the world and is in great demand to aid the treatment of Covid patients.

Meanwhile, the Aarogya Setu contact tracing app has already seen more than 7.5 crore downloads.

We must now further strengthen the life sciences sector to meet the demands of the future. This will require a multi-dimensional approach.

Also read: To achieve herd immunity, vaccine and a data-driven approach needed: WHO chief scientist

Strengthening life sciences

First. There must be close industry-government collaboration to develop and fine-tune regulations to promote fast growth for the sector.

Second. We must ensure that we rapidly build up our life sciences workforce so that we can have enough talented people available for both the health care and the life sciences sectors.

Third. We should consider whether we are providing enough financial support for sectoral growth.

And, finally, we must leverage the fast-emerging Indian SuperCloud to connect all our life sciences activity.

Some of our life sciences enterprises are now world leaders such as Cipla, Aurobindo, Lupin, and DRL. Some 50 per cent of the world’s vaccines are produced in India. We also produce 20 per cent of the world’s generic medicines. The pharma industry alone generates close to $20 billion in annual exports.

Our skilled doctors, nurses, and other life sciences professionals are leading major research programmes in India and around the world. The coronavirus pandemic has proven to all of us that we have not been spending enough on life sciences and health care.

Resources and spending will need to grow dramatically to protect the world’s population. Life sciences companies should now work closely with our various regulators and policy-makers through empowered working groups to drive up investment, growth, and jobs.

Also read: Made-in-India Covid-19 vaccine could be ready in a year, says Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Need coordinated policies

Life sciences is a tightly regulated sector. In India, we have several regulators across multiple ministries that have oversight over the sector.

The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) sets prices for bulk drugs and formulations and is within the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers. The ministry of health and family welfare manages the safety, efficacy, and quality of drugs and medical devices through the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation. In the same ministry, the National Health Portal of India is formulating Electronic Health Record (EHR) standards, which will also be governed by the Personal Data Protection bill, being handled by the ministry of electronics and information technology.

All life sciences research is conducted under the guidelines established by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Ministry of Science & Technology. The Ayush Ministry and Niti Aayog also play an important role in the life sciences sector. Although health is a state subject and each state can develop policies to support the sector, it is important that all these regulators and decision-makers, both at the centre and the state level, working with industry, develop coordinated response for sectoral growth.

Also read: Covid-19 response is a chance for companies to place planet over profits

Readying the workforce

Along with deep collaboration between industry and government at all levels, we must also build up our life sciences workforce. Today we have 535 medical colleges in India graduating about 79,000 students every year. It is estimated that we currently have 300,000 annual nursing seats available. In addition, there are lakhs of biology, biotechnology, and chemistry students graduating every year who can be employed in the life sciences sector.

That said, we still have only 0.7 doctors per 1,000 people against the minimum World Health Organization’s standard of 1 per 1000 people. For nurses, we are at 1.7 when we should be at 2.5. In addition, we need to provide our educational institutions with significantly higher research funding so that we can get more young scientists and researchers to work towards developing cutting-edge solutions in drugs, devices, and therapies segments.

Also read: Critical drugs supply must not be disrupted, EU envoy says as India bans & resumes exports

Mend the funding gap

Government funding worth thousands of crores of rupees is required to drive this research culture in India. An expert panel could be constituted to select 10-15 research areas such as genomics, computational biology, virology, epidemiology, neuroscience, stem cell research, etc.

Multi-year research grants could then be provided to top scientists (in India or from our community abroad) to pursue their research and train graduate students. Research productivity could then be judged on objective global metrics (high-quality citations, placement of graduate students in top institutions, and so on) to ensure accountability and quality.

We also need to back new life sciences enterprises with venture capital financing. The government has established a Rs 10,000 crore Fund-of-Funds to support venture capital funds. It might be possible to allocate a significant fraction of this money solely to life sciences funds, so that they can provide the necessary financing and support to life sciences startups. This will require that SIDBI have the necessary expertise to identify and nurture life sciences funds.

Also read: US drug authority warns Americans not to pop hydroxychloroquine pills without prescription

SuperCloud contribution

Finally, India’s fast-emerging SuperCloud can play an important role in the development of the life sciences sector. With high-speed 5G networks and local data centres, telemedicine and remote diagnostics will become fully feasible.

The provisions of the new Personal Data Protection bill will make it possible to develop a secure electronic health record (EHR) for every individual so that their necessary healthcare eligibility, data, and payments/insurance are available as required. Large local data lakes will enable AI and computational biology to develop therapies targeted for the Indian genome.

Pandemics will come and go, but our non-communicable disease burden will continue to rise. Around the world, there is a looming shortage of skilled medical professionals and researchers. New, low-cost therapies are in high demand. The Indian life sciences sector can take advantage of these circumstances to not only protect our health, but also become a growth engine for India’s economy.

Jayant Sinha is the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. These are his personal views.

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  1. Citizens and politicians need to become more responsible. We have seen various religious events, marriage celebrations, birthday celebrations in the last 5 weeks. we see people coming out and not obeying police. All this will ensure a longer lock down and costing us in terms of money, economy and deaths. Indian governments in the first 40-45 years absolutely failed to instill discipline in citizens. This is making the task of managing COVID 19 even more difficult. After L B Shastryji, we have leader who is asking citizens to make sacrifices. Otherwise, the attempt always was to make citizens believe that they will get things without working hard and efforts. Affluent citizens need to follow healthy life style which hopefully percolate down. Our school children need to be educated about it. Just improving per capita income and GDP will not help. Otherwise, no amount of funds and budget allocation will be adequate.

  2. Life sciences certainly is a need of the times ; the Covid situation has changed many equations and priorities. Research ideas and thoughts , assessed and prioritised ,supported ,monitored and outcome / contribution elucidated is more important than duplication, unfit for application / translation type of work. Capital located and centric organisations in some areas require almost an overhaul and revamp. These few aspects plus result oriented approach and responsive regulatory bodies can bring in desired change. ME Yeolekar,Mumbai. ( Dir-Prof)

  3. India spends a lot of money on a lot of things. But it seldom invests wisely and is corroded since 1947 by its pervasive structure system and process of creating incompetent resources and then employing them to ply corruption and dispense largess or harassment on the basis of caste tribe, religion, language, geography, gender, geography and proximity to power. As exemplified by Modi’s Tax and Waste policies since 2014.
    The British had founded the Pasteur Institute at Coonoor on April 6th 1907 and which Institution was dedicated to formulating and creating vaccines and named after Louis Pasteur, the French genius who invented the process of vaccination.
    Britain has two teams working on it since eight weeks and is putting in place manufacturing facilities to manufacture the requisite number by August. The Oxford team was first off the bat and Britain has commenced human testing on 23rd April Imperial College London should be ready with Vaccine “B” soon. But India gave up evolution along with governance in 1947.
    The Pasteur Institute, like all of Indian Institutions such as the Courts, RBI, Armed Forces, Universities etc became moribund political statements and slogans dedicated to providing sinecures for incompetent, corrupt Kleptocrats selected and / or promoted by nepotism, favoritism, or birth into chosen castes, tribes, religions, genders, language, geographies, and proximity to power owing to the lack of effective, competent leaders with integrity.
    Hence, India maintains the facade of a Developed Nation State as it was in 1947, albeit with the names of scoundrels and scallywags replacing those of the makers of Modern India, while completely dependent on alien patrons and charity for survival having abolished all progress and lowered all standards to those of the “backwards” i.e. to less than Modal Mediocrity.”

    • You are jumping from British Raj to Modi era. Obviously, the years lost to Socialism, huge corruption in Congress Raj even in the years 1947 to 2000 are ignored to prove your point. Are you referring to the makers of modern India whose policies forced India to insolvency in 1990 and had to transfer Gold out of country to survive? Mind you , I lived in those years. Or Italian Zarini who does not have formal education nor experience in any field and her illustrious son who cannot count numbers nor pronounce Indian Names? Do you expect BJP/Modi to do what Congress and its splinter groups could not do in 65 years?

  4. For more than four decades, both the Central and State governments have squandered valuable resources on populist schemes and reservation. The newspapers were in the forefront of lauding such stupid measures. So, money which could have been deployed in education and research went to waste bodies of the societies. Now, the birds have come home to roost. In India, pure science has always been a neglected area.

  5. Spending on life science research will not fetch votes for the government. Only freebies subsidies reservation loan waivers will keep the people happy and allow the government to remain in power. This is how politicians think.

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