A medical worker inoculates a colleague with a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, Mumbai, January 16, 2021 (AFP)
A medical worker inoculates a colleague with a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, Mumbai, January 16, 2021 (AFP)

Building a stronger scientific ecosystem to fight future crises

The year 2020 put a spotlight on the capability, resilience and adaptability of the Indian scientific ecosystem. In 2021, we are confident of having a much stronger science-based response to any challenge we may face in the future.
By Renu Swarup
UPDATED ON JAN 17, 2021 06:54 PM IST

The year 2020 was marked by challenges posed by Covid-19, and the pivotal role science played in responding to these challenges. India has been at the forefront of the global fight against Covid-19 to deliver innovative solutions at scale not just for itself, but also the world. The learnings and successes from the year, such as ramping up indigenous testing capacities and collaborating across sectors and communities for innovation and development, have helped us build a stronger ecosystem to fight health crises in the future.

During the initial days of the outbreak, it was unimaginable that in less than 12 months we would have a vaccine ready for use. However, India’s scientific community delivered. India began its vaccination drive on January 16. We have been the world’s foremost producer of vaccines, contributing to the immunisation of about 60% of the world’s children; our success in developing vaccines for Covid-19 has further strengthened our reputation as a global leader in the field even as six to eight other candidates are in advanced stages of development.

In March 2020, when widespread testing began, India was reliant on imported kits. With supply chain disruptions and a global demand for diagnostic kits, it was important for us to develop indigenous capacity for their production. The challenge was taken up by start-ups and researchers and within 60 days, RT-PCR kits were developed. Today, we have over 100 indigenously manufactured antibody, antigen and other novel technology-based diagnostics in the market.

As part of the effort to address the shortage of critical healthcare technologies and move towards self-sufficiency, the DBT-AMTZ COMManD (Covid Medtech Manufacturing Development) Consortia was formed. Among its successful initiatives was building India’s first I-Lab (infectious disease diagnostic lab), a mobile testing facility to conduct testing. The state-of-the-art facility was made in a record time of eight days. In addition to the kits, it was also important for us to be self-reliant when it came to the components, reagents, and resources across the product development chain. For this purpose, the National Biomedical Resource Indigenisation Consortium was launched by the department of biotechnology and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council. The objective was to provide a platform to build indigenous biomedical resources towards a self-reliant biotech ecosystem. Today there are more than 30 reagent manufacturers who are collectively delivering indigenous components.

To support India’s scientific and medical community for the development of vaccines and other solutions during the pandemic, the government created a strong ecosystem — setting up 11 clinical trial sites; creating five Covid-specific bio-repositories; a network of bioassay and immunogenicity study laboratories; developing animal challenge models; shared infrastructure for virus characterisation, sequencing and culture; notification of guidelines for specimen-sharing for research purposes; and putting in place a rapid response regulatory framework to ensure transparency and efficiency without compromising on the quality of data. Today, we are developing vaccines for the world, exporting diagnostic kits, and looking at building and strengthening clinical trial capacities in our neighbouring countries.

The department of biotechnology in the ministry of science and technology — working with its 16 autonomous research institutes, its large network of research laboratories, its vibrant start-up ecosystem across the bio-incubators and other institutes, and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council — created a strong Covid Research Consortia, which will now pave the path to move beyond Covid-19. To advocate the importance of prevention, preparedness and partnership against epidemics, the first-ever International Day of Epidemic Preparedness was held on December 27 by the United Nations. The year 2020 put a spotlight on the capability, resilience and adaptability of the Indian scientific ecosystem. In 2021, we are confident of having a much stronger science-based response to any challenge we may face in the future.

Renu Swarup is secretary, department of biotechnology, Government of IndiaThe views expressed are personal

Renu Swarup is secretary, department of biotechnology in Government of India

The views expressed are personal

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