Innovation could help India out of its health quagmire
Health innovations — from vaccinations to bed nets — have been instrumental in fighting some of world’s most persistent and deadly diseases. Now more than ever, countries around the world are recognising and investing in the potential of innovation to ensure that more people can lead healthy, productive lives.
It’s exciting to see this trend in action in India, which is emerging as a leader in developing tools that improve health care. India introduced the first domestically developed rotavirus vaccine, Rotavac, to curb infant mortality from diarrhoea. The vaccine has the potential to prevent approximately 27,000 deaths and 300,000 hospitalisations in India each year, and it could also play a key role in addressing global supply issues that have placed millions of children at risk. Online logistic management systems such as the Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network (eVIN) are helping to ensure real time information on vaccine stock and cold chain management so that lifesaving vaccines reach the people who need them the most.
By 2030, the government aims to place India among the top three countries globally in science and technology. Investing to realise this vision, the Union Budget increased its allocation in these areas by 7.5% in 2018-19 to Rs 65,741 crore. We applaud these investments, which have enormous potential to improve lives in India and abroad, and to strengthen the Indian economy in the process.
One initiative that speaks to the promise of national innovation is Grand Challenges India. With a fundamental belief that great ideas can, and do, come from everywhere, Grand Challenges supports the world’s brightest minds in tackling big problems in health and development. Launched in 2003, its network now includes national-level programmes in more than a dozen countries that have collectively awarded more than $1 billion to innovators from 87 nations.
To support and cultivate India’s vibrant community of innovators, in 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to launch a national Grand Challenges programme. The aim was to identify and fund the development of bold new ideas and technologies to address human and animal health, food, nutritional and development problems.
Over the last six years, the programme has launched seven challenges, received over 2,000 scientific applications and supported 18 projects. We’ll share just a few exciting examples.
The first is an initiative to inspire better toilets. India’s Reinvent the Toilet challenge asked scientists to come up with sustainable solutions for improved sanitation. Researchers from the Kerala-based company, ERAM Scientific, were among the many who stepped up. They developed India’s first public electronic toilet, 900 of which have now been installed in schools across the country.
Another is 99DOTS, which is helping India reach its ambitious target of being tuberculosis free by 2025. While the disease is curable, treatment is complicated and causes poor adherence to drug regimens. Everwell Health Solutions, based in Bangalore, created 99DOTS to help patients stay on track at a fraction of the cost of other monitoring tools. The system has reached over 80,000 patients and the team is working with the government to expand even further.
Grand Challenges India also tackles connected issues like food security, nutrition and agriculture. Achieving Healthy Growth through Agriculture & Nutrition (AgNu) funds Indian-led pilot projects that aim to reduce low birth weight, early stunting and wasting among Indian infants. Supported by this programme, researchers from Society for Science developed a solar-conduction food-dryer to promote year-round diet diversity, which has been successfully used by 250 women farmers. Plans are now in place for an international scale up involving 1,200 farmer cooperatives in eight countries.
Grand Challenges India recently joined forces with similar initiatives in Brazil and Africa to address antimicrobial resistance, which threatens the effectiveness of drugs that people rely on to treat tuberculosis, malaria and many other illnesses. The programme has also partnered with several Indian government agencies to launch its fourth call to reach more people with lifesaving immunisations through better data.
Innovation requires time and patience, but with partnerships and commitment, the future looks bright. Grand Challenges India is fostering innovations that will help people in India and around the world lead better lives. Innovation has enormous potential for India’s future, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is excited to continue supporting the Indian government and innovation community on the path from idea to impact.
Trevor Mundel and Nachiket Mor are employees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The views expressed are personal