The stories that mark the World Aids Day today are normally either doleful or are the few feel-good ones that we have. But looking objectively at the challenge of HIV/Aids, it is simple; if we don’t ramp up investment in the health sector, the economy is bound to dip. In the last decade or so, India strengthened its commitment and investment in its health research and development (R&D) by creating new innovative technologies. It worked towards becoming a hub for high-quality, low-cost generic medications for global procurement.
The successful battle against polio is an example of how smart innovation and technology in the form of vaccines can work in our favour. Similarly, India has played a pivotal role in the global fight against HIV/Aids due to its robust biopharmaceutical industry. Recognised for its generic-drug manufacturing capabilities, India has made anti-retroviral treatment available and accessible to millions, accounting for more than 80% of donor-funded anti-HIV treatment since 2006.
Investments made in R&D years earlier have yielded benefits, but to continue on the path of progress we need to retain and escalate investments in the HIV/Aids field. Aids vaccine research needs to be a priority if we are to reap our demographic dividend. In the absence of a cure for HIV, the development of prevention technologies to prevent HIV offers great promise for slowing the epidemic. And a lasting solution to this means an effective preventive Aids vaccine.
The state of public health urgency demands the accelerated development of vaccines and preventive technologies, especially when development itself in achieving health targets has been uneven. For example, although the number of new HIV/Aids infections has declined over the last decade, almost 130,000 people in India are infected every year, with young people, especially women and girls, men who have sex with men, female sex workers, injecting drug users, and other marginalised groups being disproportionately affected. New biomedical tools of prevention in conjunction with existing measures will provide effective solutions to diseases like HIV/ Aids. Studies suggest that an Aids vaccine with 50% efficacy given to just 30% of the population would prevent 5.6 million new infections by 2030. Further, a 70% effective vaccine administered to 40% of the population would avert 9.8 million new infections and a 90% effective Aids vaccine with 40% coverage would prevent 12 million new infections by 2030.
Such calculated efforts are reason enough to increase investment in the field. India’s share in the global vaccine market is consistently increasing and at present the country’s share stands at more than 33% in the global market. Its biopharmaceutical sector is valued at $26 billion and is one of the fastest-growing knowledge-based areas with a growth rate of 20% in the last few years. Can we thus not anticipate the possible health and resultant economic benefits such avenues open for us?
While witnessing such promise, one must not forget that quantifying research and innovation indicators is difficult, as timelines are often long, and success in R&D need not necessarily be defined by the health outcomes but by a complex set of milestones that must be met in advance which continue to inform research.
Having established itself as a centre of excellence in health R&D the country stands on the threshold of a new era of scientific advancement. What it really needs is increased investment from the private sector. And this need not be philanthropic. If a safe, effective, accessible, preventive Aids vaccine is found, everyone stands to profit, those who have invested in it, those who have created it, the country from where it originates and most of all those who will be saved from HIV infection.
(Sudhanshu Mittal is a political commentator and also mentor of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in India. The views expressed by the author are personal.)