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View from India: Synthetic biology slated to be game changer

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Over the last year, the pandemic has unleashed the true power of science and technology, pharma, biotechnology and research. The stage has been set for innovative breakthroughs in the domains.

For India, Covid is a crisis turned into an opportunity. “With concerted efforts, a huge community of entrepreneurs has come forward to create kits, face masks and diagnostics. Bio incubators have given roots to their ideas, while the government has given them the necessary support. India has taken a leading role in diagnostics, as over one million samples have been tested,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs.

The Covid vaccine is the combined efforts of scientists, medical fraternity, researchers, entrepreneurs, technocrats and laboratories, among others. The Prime Minister has allocated Rs 900 crore towards the Indian Covid-19 Vaccine Development Mission.

Several government-led institutions have come forward to make this a reality. R&D units have conducted research and trials on the vaccine. The Department of Science & Technology (DST) and Indian Council of Medical Research, which is the apex body for biomedical research, have opened out channels for trails beyond Indian shores. “The year 2020 is the year of Covid and the year of Science. DST and DRDO [Defence Research and Development Organisation] have risen to the occasion. Factories that make airplanes have doubled up as manufacturing units for vaccines,” said Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister Science & Technology, Health & Family Welfare and Earth Sciences. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research began to repurpose drugs and genome sequencing.

Over 50 per cent of the world’s demand for vaccines comes from India. “With Covid, we have learnt that we can deliver on the fast-track mode. Within four weeks, the country brought out 96 diagnostics,” explained Dr Vinod Paul, Member Health, NITI Aayog, policy think tank of Government of India (GoI).

Almost one million Covid tests are done per day across the country and 1.35 crore citizens have been vaccinated. The magnitude of the domestic production of vaccines is in line with Atmanirbhar Bharat, or Self Reliant India. “In practical terms, this can be understood as vaccines that are produced for India and the world. The package is complete with pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, PPE [personal protection equipment] kits and face masks. The required support comes from the National Biotech Development Strategy [NBDS]. The Report has been released virtually this week. It comes at a time when India’s bio economy is aiming to be $150bn by 2025,” highlighted Sitharaman. NBDS has strategised measures that encourage manufacturers to make for India and for the world.

The GoI has taken steps to make biotechnology part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat vision. Budgetary allocation, simplified procedures and an investor-friendly environment, along with measures to build a skilled talent pool, are part of GoI’s agenda.

Biotechnology offers trillion-dollar opportunities in the form of bio molecules, bio systems, bio machine interfaces and bio computing. Biotech will form the basis of around 60 per cent of the world’s physical inputs; Bio industrial, bio agriculture, bio pharma, bio services and bio IT are among the segments. “India’s biotech industry was valued at $62bn in 2019. The industrial applications of life sciences extend to R&D in genome. Biotech will lead to bio production, bio engineering and bio medicines,” added Dr VK Saraswat, member, NITI Aayog.

Synthetic biotechnology is estimated to be a game changer; it will facilitate the creation of cells and help produce novel medicines. “India has taken a lead in R&D hubs, but most of them are in the IT space. That’s because IT professionals can develop software at scale. Coming to biotechnology, the focus should be on areas like synthetic biology and bio similars. Innovation and manufacturing will be opportunities of the future,” reasoned Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, executive chairperson, Biocon Limited.

Research and solutions in synthetic biology and bio similars will help propel India forward. The aim is to be part of the global innovative ecosystem, beginning with a startup that should be scalable for global requirements. Innovation can happen in synthetic biology and rare diseases, and this should be taken to the masses with proper regulation in place. “For instance, biomass can be converted into energy. Biotechnology with artificial intelligence tools can be leveraged for daily needs of people,” observed Dr Vardhan.    

When we look at the biotech global value chains, India’s participation can increase by building a skilled biotech workforce as it is a labour-intensive industry. By 2025, the biotech industry in the country aims to reach $150bn, of which $70bn has already been achieved. “Compounded annual growth rate of over 15 per cent is required for the country to fulfil its aim of being a bio economy. The speed with which we have come up with vaccines is a move in this direction. The country can meet 60 per cent of the global vaccine needs,” added Prof M Vidyasagar, chair, NBDS Formulation Group, Distinguished Prof IIT – Hyderabad. The Department of Biotechnology plans to set up five biotech manufacturing zones.

Atmanirbhar Bharat is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for making India Self Reliant. It can become a framework to link India to the global value chain. “Atmanirbhar Bharat should be a means to leverage India’s scale to be a player in global economies. To pursue this vision, generally global value chains are more productive and capital intensive than the domestic ones,” said Junaid Ahmad, country director, World Bank. Many firms contributing to global value chains are creators of women’s employment and this is worth emulating.

The Union Budget 2021-2022 has increased the outlays for the science and technology domain. The university ecosystem is being funded to showcase innovation in biotechnology. “For Atmanirbhar Bharat to be part of the global supply chain, it should be part of the global financial ecosystem as well as global manufacturing ecosystem. India has 20 per cent global market share of genome medicines,” said Dr Shaw. It’s now time for the country to break fresh ground in the area of airborne and microbial diseases.

These insights were discussed at Global Bio-India 2021: Transforming Lives, Biosciences to Bioeconomy. The event was held virtually and organised by the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India and its Public Sector Undertaking, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council.

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