India’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the country’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. Though it is not obvious to most people, every facet of what a country needs to detect, diagnose, and respond to biological threats like pandemics requires scientific research and technical capacity that can be mobilized at large scale. In India, the scale is almost unimaginably large. To their credit, Indian researchers, innovators, and regulators have come together to introduce low-cost diagnostics, develop therapeutics, and conduct research to create safe and effective vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, these communities have faced several challenges during different stages including discovery, research and development, clinical trials, or commercialization of their products, which became acutely apparent in recent weeks.
This session convened scientists and industry experts to discuss such challenges and the impact of the pandemic on India’s biotechnology industry and prospects of its future growth. The discussion highlighted lessons that India can learn from the current pandemic to move forward to build a robust and effective research ecosystem to detect, understand, and respond to future disease outbreaks. The meeting was moderated by Taslimarif Saiyed, director and chief executive officer of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms.
- Diagnostics in India: Participants discussed that a great deal of collaboration amongst researchers, private sector, and the regulatory community has been observed during the coronavirus pandemic. They highlighted that support from the regulatory authorities motivated several academic and private labs to develop diagnostic kits indigenously. However, experts argued that India still imports most testing kits. The need for imports stems from a quantitative shortage of production capacity and qualitative problems in ensuring that indigenous kits are reliable. Participants therefore suggested that regulators and researchers should work more closely to develop diagnostics that meet international standards.
- Vaccine Development in India: The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the forefront the potential of the scientific community and the private sector to develop and manufacture vaccines in a limited time frame. Participants discussed that during the initial stages of the pandemic, Indian vaccine companies were trying to import vaccine development technology and only conduct clinical development in India. But within a year, India has developed a few vaccines indigenously. A few participants however highlighted that the regulatory system in India, in light of the pandemic, is not fully conducive for smaller firms to fast-track potential candidates, given lack of resources and a clarity of path, thereby constricting the scope of vaccine manufacturing and delivery in India. They therefore suggested that whenever the pandemic is controlled, Indian researchers, industry, and government should assess the impediments to indigenous discoveries, production, and distribution and create strategies to overcome them.
- Therapeutic Interventions in India: India has been the generics pharmacy to the world. But the coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep fault lines in India’s healthcare capacity to treat people. These shortcomings derive from the generally poor status of public health infrastructure in India. Participants therefore highlighted that in addition to developing safe and effective drugs, India needs to invest in manufacturing personal protective equipment, scaling up oxygen supply, developing new medical infrastructure, and building a cohort of healthcare workers to ensure availability and resilience in the system.
- Disease Surveillance in India: Participants underscored that India has too many silos for surveillance of infectious diseases. There are multiple organizations across the local, state, and national level that collect data for the same disease but with differing case definitions and limited coordination. This leads to different disease numbers being reported under different programs, explained participants. They therefore highlighted the need for India to invest in an integrated disease surveillance mechanism with better data sharing protocols. They also discussed the importance of public-private collaboration to setup centres that can sequence pathogens which can lead to timely detection of outbreaks. Experts however discussed that reliance on imports for reagents and lack of skilled people have constrained India’s capacity to scale up their sequencing efforts. They underlined that India should invest in developing quality reagents indigenously to broaden the scope of genome sequencing.
- Digitization of Health Data in India: Participants underscored the importance of an urgent charter for digitized health data in India. They emphasized that IT companies and public-private partnerships across the country can be deployed to digitize health data. Participants emphasized yet again that data standardization, a procedure to bring data into a common format for collaborative research, analytics, and sharing of methodologies is critical to pandemic preparedness and response. This can help us solve a variety of challenges that people faced during the current pandemic, they highlighted.
- South-South Cooperation in Health: A few participants highlighted the need for scientists in India to collaborate with researchers in other developing countries such as Brazil and Cuba which have relatively strong biotechnology capacity. In addition to scientists, participants also discussed the need to provide an enabling environment to the academic community—both public and private—for them to come up with solutions that can be used for pandemic preparedness and response.
Participants indicated the importance of investing in regulators with scientific expertise, who understand technology and new innovations. This can be setup either through lateral entries in the system or through external consultants who can advise the government thereby resulting in timely approvals of new and innovative technology solutions. The research and industry communities expressed their willingness to help wherever and whenever they can.