Dr. Moinak Banerjee
President, Indian Society of Human Genetics
No one ever realised that such a small 60-140nm nano-organism can bring the entire world to a standstill. This pandemic had resulted in the biggest ever recession the world has ever faced since World War II. With complete disruption in demand and supply, trade, and finance, due to COVID19, the world economy is predicted to shrink by 5.2%. India with its largest population size is also facing the brunt of COVID19 with a daily economic burden of 5.6 billion rupees on testing alone. India has crossed the mark of one million test per day and has already tested 190 million individuals, which would ideally mean that India must have spent close to around ₹ 1 trillion on COVID testing. This is just the tip of the iceberg in comparison to the recurring cost of preventive measures and hospitalization. Considering that all industries and business were at standstill, and the economy is on downhill, this amount is indeed a lot to sacrifice. The quantum of loss is enormous but it also has shown the way for many positive outcome. Globally the entire political, administrative, health and research community were compelled to divert their focus to prevent and arrest this pandemic. India political and scientific establishment too accepted the challenge to resolve with the biggest success story of developing a vaccine in just 9 months.
Indian government was extremely quick to act both administratively and scientifically and probably this helped to curtail the mortality rate to a large extent. India can still boast of having the least mortality rate. Possibly, an early lockdown helped the health professionals, researchers and administration to understand the pattern of infectivity of the virus and evolve a strategy to handle the situation better. With the direct indulgence of the Prime Minister and its percolating effects on various scientific bodies, be it Dept. of Science and Technology, ICMR, Dept. of Biotechnology, CSIR, Ministry of Education, Deference establishments or even ISRO, all took it as mission to restrict the spread of the virus. It was also a testing time for the Indian scientists, clinicians and software developers as they had to respond to a call for which they had no clue and in the process learnt to work as a rapid response team. In no time one saw several indigenous products starting from masks, PPE kits, diagnostics kits with variety of innovative technologies being developed indigenously. Today we have close to around 2345 laboratories in the country generating more than 1 million tests per day using variety of methods, such as antibody, antigen, RTPCR, LAMP, CrisPr based diagnostic kits. We saw several high end research institutes, public sector enterprises, technological institutes including IITs, medical institutions jumped into the foray to not only develop diagnostics kits or RNA isolation kits but also varieties of face masks, PPE suits, sanitisers, plasma therapies, therapeutics (repurposed, herbal or novel drugs), public health monitoring apps, participatory citizen centric public health strategies, ventilators, hand held UV devices, Ion generators, air purifiers, walk in sanitation chambers, AI driven tools etc etc. Vaccine development which ideally takes several years has also reached the common masses for restricted use with completely indigenous efforts in just 9 months. Ideally everyone was involved in doing everything. We also saw an emergence of virtual modes of meetings, classrooms, music, yoga and meditation lessons, which were extremely helpful restricting unnecessary expenditure on travel and carbon emissions. Excessive dependence on e-commerce in this COVID period also brought curbs on tax evasion. All these were extremely positive initiatives and the response from various governmental and public sector enterprises was also phenomenal.
One would wonder if COVID19 wasn’t there, could Indians identify or explore the potential within, for an Atmanirbhar Bharat. In this pandemic, we saw the re-emergence of citizen science approach and its application. Citizen science approach was used for the first time in an open source drug discovery (OSDD) program, a brain child of former CSIR DG Prof. Samir Brahmachari. This approach came handy again in this pandemic where citizen science approach was used for devising public health emergencies. One has seen the pros and cons of OSDD and therefore, the natural question is what next. In this pandemic so many technologies have been developed and tested and how many of these reached the market, do they have provision of commercial production and marketing framework. Indeed, it was a mission well responded which need to be applauded but was not carried out in a mission mode process. A mission mode process will help us to better utilise our resources and minimise unnecessary expenditures. We indeed learnt a lot in this pandemic and now it is time we need to streamline our resources for better utilization.
We have seen a variety of products being developed by various government institution in a free for all mode, but a large majority of the products could not reach the market and thereby remained as demonstration piece for political satisfaction rather than its practical utility. One of the reason is, government institutions are capable but lacks appropriate legal and administrative framework for translational activities such as large scale validation, scaling up of technologies, branding and marketing. To resolve biomedical needs, applications and its translational ventures, a vision document should be mandated with a very clear and transparent views for a mission mode approach. Biomedical needs are very diverse, therefore in an ideal mission mode program for biomedical applications, one should involve and balance the public private partnership, where government institutes should develop the technologies and transfer the technology with appropriate IPR to industrial houses for validating, scaling, branding and marketing. Rather than depending completely on governmental funding, industrial houses should also be encouraged to identify critical technologies they wish to support and get involved in funding right from early developmental stage to reach the market. This would minimise illegitimate expenditure and redundancy and develop a framework for a strong foolproof mission mode program so that the product can reach the market faster with lesser burden to the govt. It is time that policy makers and administrators learn from this pandemic experience. One of the biggest example is the success of indigenous COVID vaccine story of India. Any government research institute might have developed this as they are very familiar with the technologies used, but would not venture as they do not have the framework and capability to mass produce, or undertake clinical trial.