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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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