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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Making of a biotech hub

The pandemic has given the country an opportunity to evolve from being the pharmacy of the world to being the centre of cutting edge research.

Updated: November 20, 2020 6:52:24 pm
coronavirus, Covid sanitation, biotechnology, sars cov 2,The unprecedented COVID situation is a huge challenge to the country, but it has brought with it many opportunities. And India’s response was immediate.

By Renu Swarup

Over the last few decades, India has made huge strides to emerge as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The country has seen an immense improvement in the number and quality of its healthcare facilities, reduction in pregnancy-related deaths, improvement in sanitation and immunisation coverage and has successfully averted several preventable disease epidemics

In 1986, much before any other country in the world, the Government of India recognised the enormous potential of biotechnology and established a separate department committed to this branch of science. Decades later, when the deadly novel coronavirus, which has now unfortunately come to define 2020, wreaked havoc on humanity, the world has set its eyes on us, among other nations, for potential solutions against SARS-CoV-2.

Our tremendously talented pool of doctors, researchers and virologists have led the country’s response against the COVID-19 pandemic from the front. These researchers and innovators have shown the way forward by introducing low-cost diagnostics and testing kits, manufacturing PPE kits, masks & therapeutics and now conducting clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccine. The clinical trial for the vaccine – developed by the Oxford University and produced by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D – has entered the final phase.

The unprecedented COVID situation is a huge challenge to the country, but it has brought with it many opportunities. And India’s response was immediate. The collaboration between industry and academia, both national and international, and the deep involvement of start-ups played a major role in the accelerated response delivery system. Never before have we seen such collective ownership for a global challenge. Scientists, researchers, industry, start-ups have come forward and added strength to a well-developed action plan.

In time, we saw the system responding. When we were struck with supply chain disruption, the immediate need was to have our indigenous production of masks, PPE’s, ventilators and most importantly diagnostic kits. In less than 60 days from 100 per cent import we attained self-sufficiency — today we are in a position to export and help our neighbouring countries and the world.

How did this happen? We have over the last few years seen a special focus of the government in building a vibrant innovation ecosystem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Startup India, Make in India and similar other programmes which have today established a very strong foundation of an ecosystem that has been enabling policy initiatives. These were quickly repositioned, repurposed and re-energised to respond to the urgent needs.

India’s pioneering achievements in biotechnology is the primary reason why the sector employs the best of minds and contributes to the development of generic and affordable medicare. The country accounts for approximately 3 per cent of the global biotech industry. Industry enterprise, a highly-skilled research force backed by government support, has led the biotechnology sector to grow from $1.1 billion in 2003 to a mammoth $64 billion sector in 2019. While these are laudable accomplishments, the government acknowledges the need for the sector’s continuous transformation and growth. We already have over 2,700 biotech start-ups and are expected to touch the 10,000-mark by 2024. Over 3,500 biotech companies generate employment, contribute to the country’s economy and facilitate a sustainable environment. By 2025, we aim to be worth a $150 billion industry.

While the increased budget is a welcome step, the target investment in R&D is a reflection of the government’s commitment to keeping the industry flush with money for new ideas, innovations, and discoveries to flourish. To this end, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), established under the Department of Biotechnology in 2012, continues to play a crucial role. BIRAC brings innovators and funders on to a common table, enabling ideas to become a reality and facilitate technological advances that make human progress possible. The current pandemic has reinforced the need to frame research and development as a key priority in our national agenda. Even though the world is going through a shared crisis, COVID has also made us look inwards for solutions. PM Modi has repeatedly stressed on the need for building a “self-reliant India”, asking us to be “vocal for local”. This call has great resonance for the biotechnology sector and its potential to lead us out of the current crisis. Therefore, we must motivate our young scientists to continue this path of research and generate new ideas and solutions. The PM’s message of “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” will lead to an entrepreneur-friendly ecosystem in the country wherein our energetic youth and their innovations will thrive.

India has played a very important role in global health and innovation. The pandemic has provided the country with an opportunity to play the lead role in a global biotech ecosystem. It is time to build on our existing strengths and enter the next stage — from being the pharmacy of the world to being the hub of cutting-edge innovation and research. This is just the beginning. The next decade will be ours.

The writer is Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Union Ministry of Science and Technology

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