Robust Research and Innovation Ecosystem: Key to address healthcare challenges

Farma Darya

By Dr Renu Swarup

Research and innovation are today globally recognised as the key drivers of our economic and sustainable growth. Research and Development (R&D) is a continuous process which is required not only to develop new solutions for current challenges, but to take up cutting edge technology development for future emerging priorities. Innovation is the key pillar of R&D to tackle challenges and find novel solutions for meeting domestic and global demands. In the past century, we have witnessed how innovation has driven growth and development across the globe. Countries around the world are increasingly investing in R&D and innovation for building the required capacity to develop science and technology based solutions for boosting productivity and addressing pressing development challenges. In India too, several government policies have been introduced to stimulate innovation and unleash the country’s true potential of deploying science and emerging technologies in order to address local challenges and develop innovative products that not only transform our country and economy, but also shape modern societies globally.  

The pandemic has highlighted the need for nations to be prepared to respond to health emergencies. The last two years were marked by challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the role science played in responding to these challenges. The pandemic tested our resilience and we witnessed how science and technology took giant strides to help India as well as the global community to mitigate the impact of the virus. 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 for the world. The learnings and successes, such as ramping up indigenous testing capacities and collaborating across sectors and communities for innovation and development of indigenous vaccines, genomic surveillance, has helped us build a stronger ecosystem to fight health crises. We are now confident of having a much stronger scientific basis of response to any challenge we may face in the future.

For a successful research ecosystem to deliver, there are three important pillars — capacity, cutting edge technologies and collaboration. Our country has seen a special focus on all these three during the pandemic. It is however important that this robust ecosystem which has delivered so effectively in this crisis, continues to do so for future challenges. Capacities have been built both in terms of human resource and infrastructure not just to respond to the pandemic but also for handling cutting edge newer technologies which make us future ready for tackling many other diseases and healthcare challenges. The ecosystem today allows for very effective collaboration between researchers from academia and industry, the start ups and international stakeholders. A state-of-the-art network of shared infrastructure has been created across the product development value chain for all bio-pharma products, which served as the foundation of our success in the pandemic.

The country saw one of its largest vaccine development programmes, “Mission COVID Suraksha” develop the largest portfolio of vaccine candidates on different platform technologies – inactivated virus, mRNA, DNA, protein subunit, nasal vaccine and other new platform technologies. India was known to be the world’s vaccine manufacturer; it has now been globally recognised as a strength in vaccine development. This was made possible through a very strong industry academia collaboration engaging a network of laboratories involving public and private sector and also start ups. An enabling robust ecosystem was built which can now be used for further vaccine developmental research. This knowledge, experience and capacity is critical  to accelerate the development of vaccines for priority diseases like Pan Coronavirus, TB, HIV, Malaria, Chikungunya, Zika and many others.

Our diagnostic success story makes every Indian proud. From complete imports in March 2020 to 100% self-reliance of indigenous testing kits in June 2020 to meet the growing targets of testing, our industry, academia and start ups came forward to work collaboratively. Today, the country has the competence to develop the most sensitive and affordable kits for the domestic and export market. The mobile labs for infectious diseases and other innovations on inflammatory markers and hospital devices like remote monitoring, ventilators etc. were quickly developed and deployed. What we now need is a scale-up of this model, setting up of medical device parks and creating a well established clinical validation network for diagnostics and devices.

The country’s largest genome sequencing network – INSACOG- was very successfully created as a network of molecular surveillance laboratories, both at centre and state level including private players. New tools and technologies of genome sequencing and other molecular markers were used for detecting new variants which allowed treatment protocols to be defined on priority. This network needs rapid expansion to cover many other target diseases especially those infections which result because of trans-boundary movement of pathogens.

While we build resilience to combat COVID-19 today and reconcile with the possibility of a new endemic infectious disease, we must realise that ‘atma nirbharta’ —is the only way to cushion us from the socio-economic blow that this pandemic has had, and also prepare us for what lies ahead in a post COVID-19 world. As we prepare ourselves for a better world, our focus should also be on the importance of indigenous research and development for impact-driven innovation. This is the key for our march towards an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat.’

As India takes on its G20 Presidency, it is important that we demonstrate our leadership at regional and global levels in the strengths we have presented in our science based response to the world’s largest health emergency. SARS-CoV-2 is not the last disease we are fighting a war against. There are, and will continue to be a  large number of pathogens and other health priorities for which there will be a continued focus on science based solutions to address the challenges of human health. This ecosystem which we have built was put to test during the pandemic with high levels of success; this strong ecosystem is now ready to deliver. Focusing on a priority of easily accessible, affordable and quality medical countermeasures, with wider consensus building, especially for the Global South, will hold the answer to convergence for timely and effective preparedness and management of public health challenges.

The author is Former Secretary to Government of India, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.

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