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View from India: Biotechnology’s potential unleashed by pandemic demand

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The pandemic has propelled the biotech industry forward. Investment now will take the sector even further.

Prior to the pandemic, innovation in biotechnology was somewhat limited. The pandemic has extended the frontiers of innovation in relatively new areas such as gene therapy and vaccine therapy. The vaccine industry has been scaled up to cater to the Indian population.

“Now the time has come to build on the vaccine production. The vaccine industry may have to prepare for forthcoming requirements like reuse-ables. It’s time to look at the entire chain including the various components, re-agents and enzymes that go into the making of diagnostics,” said Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, executive chairperson and founder, Biocon, speaking at the CII Life Sciences Conclave 2021. Such aspects probably need to be indigenised in order to maintain the flow of the supply chain.

Pre-pandemic, the thrust was towards children’s regular vaccines. Now it’s more specifically about Covid vaccines for children. The Covid vaccines, which are made in India, have been administered to at least two out of three children.

Covid has urged the medical fraternity to focus on infectious diseases much more than before and 800 clinical trials for vaccines and drugs are underway. In good faith, it would be nice if these clinical trials could also lead to low-cost medicines for cancer and diabetes, not just Covid-related diseases. The private medical colleges might probably double up as trial centres for vaccines and research.

“The mRNA vaccines are expected to come to India in the coming months. The country may have to prepare for this, taking into account the intermediaries like the disposable kits, tech tools and micro carriers, among others,” explained Dr Krishna Ella, chairman, Bharat Biotech International Limited. The government and private industry will probably jointly address the upcoming need.

When we look at the global biotech scenario, India ranks among the top biotech destinations. One of the means of moving up the scale is to open out channels for biotech startups to access capital flow. “Generally speaking, IT startups tend to attract venture capitalists (VCs) much more than biotech startups. This is because the biotech industry is capital intensive and is gestational in nature. Perhaps the answer lies in tailoring VC funds for biotech startups,” said Dr Shaw.

High net-worth individuals (HNIs) could be channeled to invest in this sector. Both VCs and HNIs should be given a track-able set of metrics and they can be incentivised for making investments. While biotech companies may come up with usable solutions that may catch the attention of VC and HNI investors, it’s also necessary to remain competitive with other countries. Biotech firms could well benefit from bringing foreign direct investment into the country.

“Companies pursuing solutions for Covid-related diseases and infections should attract investments. All this will enable the biotechnology to grow into $2bn industry by 2025, thereby registering 17 per cent growth rate,” highlighted Dr Rajesh Jain, chairman, CII National Biotechnology Committee and Managing Director, Panacea Biotec. The biotech ecosystem needs to be strengthened for this.

Biotech research calls for attention. Researches could be motivated through schemes and incentives. Production-linked incentives are giving a boost to the manufacturing industry. Why not have something similar in the biotech sector? This could encourage innovation in biotechnology. For instance, when it comes to the development of the molecules used for biosimilars, it is an expensive process. Bringing out affordable biosimilars may be an area worth exploring. When biotech companies commercialise products, they could be acknowledged through tax holidays.

As for the employment scenario, the discovery and development within the clinical sector as well as the vaccine and diagnostics industry can generate employment across the industry. These unexplored opportunities can give an impetus to biotechnology, making it a strategic asset to the nation.

When we look at the vaccine scenario, the topmost priority was to inoculate the people of the country. So it was that the vaccines that were being exported came to a halt in April. Then came the stage when vaccine production was in excess. As announced in the media, India will export the surplus of Covid vaccines under the Vaccine Maitri programme. Slated to begin in October, the initiative is a move towards the country’s commitment to the COVAX global pool. COVAX is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. The aim is to vaccinate people in low and middle income countries across the world.

The challenge is to sustain the vaccine industry when the pandemic, hopefully, begins to wane. Newer vaccines for various existing infections may then emerge in the coming times.

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