The unprecedented situation which has arisen globally because of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought before the world many valuable learnings — sustainable and collaborative practices to become self-reliant are the truest harbingers of healthy societies, economies and healthier nations. As we battle 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 not only cushion us from the socio-economic blow that this pandemic has dealt us but also prepare us for what lies ahead in a post Covid-19 world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a clarion call to all our scientists, start-ups, industry saying that “a self-reliant India is the only way forward — Atmanirbhar Bharat.”
The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), since its very inception in the late 80s, has been committed to delivering solutions for societal challenges with a focus on “Make in India.” Today, as we are positioned from discovery research to translational research, from academia to startups from institutional collaboration to knowledge translational clusters DBT has transformed the scientific innovation spectrum in India.
As appropriately said by our Prime Minister it is imperative that we don’t conflate a self-reliant India with a self-centered India. International cooperation and collaboration are at the core of self-reliance — India’s progress will undoubtedly contribute to global progress. The Department of Biotechnology and its Public Sector BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) has epitomised this value by initiating multiple collaborative research and development programmes with several countries and philanthropic organisations in diverse areas of biotechnology.
Vaccine research and development has been a core focus-area for DBT. In a matter of national pride, in 2018, ROTAVAC — a vaccine to fight rotavirus developed with support from the Department of Biotechnology — became India’s first indigenous vaccine to be prequalified by WHO. Rotavirus is a highly contagious disease that claims lives of nearly half a million children every year across the world — prequalification allowed ROTAVAC to be procured by GAVI and UN agencies for use in low and middle-income countries. Today 1 out of 6 children in the world receive India-manufactured vaccines. In 2019, DBT launched the Ind-CEPI mission programme aligned with the Global CEPI, to calibrate efforts on developing vaccines for diseases in India that could have epidemic potential, even as it prepares a multi-year plan to focus on development of vaccines for malaria, dengue, chikungunya and tuberculosis.
Similarly, since 1987, the Indo-US Vaccine Action Program (VAP), a bilateral programme of the DBT, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India; and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the USA, has supported countless research and capacity strengthening programmes in priority areas like viral hepatitis (such as hepatitis C), typhoid, rabies, rotavirus diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis, parasitic diseases (leishmaniasis, malaria), HIV co-morbidities, streptococcal infections and dengue. It’s no surprise then that the Indo-US VAP has been recognised internationally as a model bilateral programme in biomedical research. The Indo-EU collaboration for development of an influenza vaccine is another such example.
In our effort towards self-reliance, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), established by the Department of Biotechnology, has consistently exemplified the ideation-to-innovation model by identifying and incubating efforts towards needs-based product-focused research and development.
More recently, in the fight against Covid-19, DBT-BIRAC has led from the front. Within the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, DBT-BIRAC announced a
Covid-19 research consortium to develop safe and effective biomedical solutions to combat SARS-CoV-2. The consortium received an overwhelming response and has, so far, supported over 70 proposals for development of diagnostics, vaccines, novel therapeutics, repurposing of drugs and other technologies to find
solutions for the healthcare challenges of this pandemic. More than 20 different Vaccine Candidates are being developed by our indigenous developers from industry, startups and academia.
A true example of our mission towards self-reliance is the development of indigenous diagnostic kits for Covid 19. In March 2020, when the first few testing activities began we were totally dependent on imported kits. The Government took immediate action and with a combination of enabling policies and funding opportunities, today we have over 20 Indian manufacturers and a kit production capacity of more than 1 lakh kits per day. To meet this requirement, the Department of Biotechnology and BIRAC through the National Biopharma Mission have set up a manufacturing complex at AMTZ Vishakapatnam. The requirement of indigenous components, reagents and other related parts is now being met through N-BRIC, a National Biomedical Resource Indigenisation Consortia set up in a PPP model to cater to our needs to meet the targets of Atmanirbhar Bharat.
BIRAC has been fast tracking many innovations such as glucose-monitoring and hypertension monitoring which are critical in Covid-19 management. Similarly, several companies are being supported to scale-up production and manufacturing of testing and screening kits, PPEs, ventilators, etc. From extending financial support to solutions that are ready for deployment to accelerating vaccine development and encouraging vaccine research, DBT-BIRAC are playing a catalytic and enabling role in battling Covid-19 with indigenous solutions through its 16 research institutes, more than 1000 startups, and 50 bio-incubators. The DBT-BIRAC team is also working along with the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) to provide a rapid response regulatory framework for the discovery to delivery process of Covid-19 innovations.
As the world is looking at finding quick solutions for meeting the huge healthcare challenges which Covid-19 outbreak has brought before us, our effort is to ensure that our innovations continue to focus on scalability, sustainability and replicability.
As we prepare ourselves for a new world, our focus has to be on the importance of indigenous research and development of impact-driven innovation, this is key for our march towards an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat.’
(The writer is Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India)