By Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Executive Chairperson, Biocon & Biocon Biologics

The tectonic shifts that the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it has thrust the Indian biotechnology industry into the global limelight. The industry responded with grit, agility and creativity to address India’s healthcare needs in the face of a rampaging viral outbreak. This global emergency galvanized India’s life sciences ecosystem to indigenously develop a range of innovative bio-medical solutions — RT-PCR diagnostic kits, vaccines, therapies, mobile apps for contract tracing and vaccine registration, AI-based medical imaging and telehealth tools.

Even as the government, industry and start-ups joined hands to respond to the need of the hour, the pandemic unleashed opportunities we never thought existed.

A Large Domestic Market

Several cost-effective vaccines were produced at scale to immunise a billion people. It spanned indigenously developed ones such as Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, Zydus Cadila’s DNA shot ZyCoV-D and Biological E.’s Corbevax, as well as domestically produced jabs of Covishield (AstraZeneca) and Covovax (Novavax) both manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. This has led to nearly 2 billion vaccine doses being administered in the country till date, generating about USD 7 billion in domestic sales.

From just one test conducted in the lab at the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune in January 2020 to nearly 0.8 billion (ICMR data) COVID-19 tests conducted as of March 30, 2022, India has grown its testing capacity exponentially, resulting in a domestic market of ~USD 10 billion.

Several therapies, including anti-viral Remdesivir, CD6 targeting Itolizumab and steroids, were mass produced and used to treat patients suffering from severe COVID-related symptoms, generating an estimated USD 5 billion in sales in India.

The local clinical trials industry also got a booster shot from the pandemic. Over 100 trials were approved in the country in 2021, the largest in a decade, as vaccine and pharma companies rushed to test the safety and efficacy of their products. These generated business of approximately USD 1 billion for clinical research organizations in India.

The health crisis also led to a huge demand for rapid and accurate diagnostic tests to identify and manage infected individuals, creating a domestic market of ~USD 3 billion for such kits. Moreover, ~USD 9 billion worth of personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, gloves and sanitizers were sold in India.

In these two years of the pandemic, USD 30 billion worth of domestic demand was created for various products and services to tackle COVID-19, which was catered to by both Indian and international life sciences players.

Global Scale Production Capacities

Thanks to the Department of Biotechnology’s focused pursuit of Atmanirbhar Bharat initiatives, India has taken a leading global role in the manufacture of diagnostics and vaccines. Last year, India became the second largest country in manufacturing PPE kits, producing more than 5 lakh PPEs and over 1 crore N-95 masks per day.

At the same time, the country was able to build a robust information technology backbone to track and trace infections, create advanced databases and real-time dashboards to map the pandemic and deploy vaccines at scale through platforms like CoWin and Aarogya Setu. CoWin is undoubtedly the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination database and can be leveraged as a health data stack.

The COVID-19 crisis provided India the opportunity to manifest its robust capabilities in both high-end scientific research and global scale manufacturing, thanks to the deep reservoir of scientific and engineering competencies within the country.

Policy Tweaks Can Spur Exponential Growth

Several policy boosts by the government can potentially set the stage for exponential growth of India’s life sciences industry.

The Union Budget for FY22 more than doubled the outlay for healthcare and well-being, including allocations towards COVID-19 vaccination and initiatives to strengthen the country’s primary, secondary and tertiary health infrastructure. As the pandemic wanes, the government should redeploy the funds to strengthen India’s  healthcare infrastructure. The government’s Performance Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme is bolstering local manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals and complex generic drugs, which play to the Indian biopharma industry’s evolving strengths. Regulations supporting e-pharmacies and telehealth can prove to be gamechangers.

The recent thinking around Research Linked Incentives to drive innovation and garner a greater share of the value of the global pharma market, needs to translate urgently into policy implementation. To boost exports, the government needs to include the pharmaceuticals sector under the RoDTEP (Remission of Duties and Taxes on Exported Products) export promotion scheme.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an inflection point for India to emerge as a global life sciences leader. We should capitalise on the momentum we have built over the last two years to establish ‘Brand India’ as one that stands for value, innovation and the highest impact in global healthcare.

This article first appeared in The Economic Times on April 3, 2022 under the headline “Covid has been an inflection point for India to emerge as a global life sciences leader

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