Saturday, July 1, 2017

India Launches ‘Ambitious’ Biopharma Mission

S&T minister Dr Harshvardhan (second from right), DBT 
secretary Prof K Vijaya Raghvan (right) and  Dr Renu 
Swarup (second from left), managing director, BIRAC in the 
press conference to announce the Pharma Mission 
By Vinod Varshney

New Delhi: India launched Friday an ‘ambitious’ Biopharma Mission to increase amidst highly competitive environment its share in the rapidly growing global market of biopharmaceuticals that stands today at US $ 156 billion. It shocks Indians who believe India to be a ‘science superpower’ to note that it has currently a meagre 2.8 percent share in the lucrative global pie. The plan is to increase it to 5 percent in next five years. 

Union minister of Science and Technology, Dr Harsh Vardhan terms the ‘Mission’ a ‘game changing initiative’. The strategy according to him is to develop a state of the art infrastructure which would be open to be used by start-ups and industrial set-ups. Theoretically it sounds promising, but the actual success will depend on its execution.  

Under the Mission there will be a Scientific Advisory Committee, which will also include global scientific representatives to steer it. The minister claimed that in the next five years, 6 to 10 new biopharma products would be launched in the market. If it really happens the people of India will adore the Mission, scientocrats of the ministry and upcoming start-up enthusiasts.

The Mission may be seen in the backdrop of current proclivity of the Modi government to focus on ‘impact’ of the scientfic research and development, an euphemism for how the public money is being used to develop products which are useful to Indians or the national economy. This ‘focus’ has resulted into sending government scientific departments into a tizzy that scurry for business models while formulating their overall research and development plan. The Biopharma Mission is the latest example of this.

Interestingly, India that commands an annual gross domestic product of around US $ 2 trillion is seeking the help of World Bank in this Biopharma Mission. The Word Bank would extend a loan of US $ 125 million and the government of India would be putting in similar amount to make it a US $ 250 million Mission.

The minister seems gung-ho at the arrangement. He claimed in the press conference called Friday to announce the mission, “The World Bank is helping first time in an R&D activity!” Would the presence of Word Bank not deflect focus of the Indian R&D as the world body is known for subtly influencing national policies? The minister responded with his characteristic smile, “So long as I am the minister and Modiji the prime minister, there is no question of any such influence.” “And so far as scientific field is concerned, there is no harm in seeking foreign collaboration,” he added thoughtfully.

Prof K Vijay Raghavan, the secretary Department of Biotechnology emphasises that the focus would be to create a robust Biotechnology ‘ecosystem’ which will not only help academia but also the industry, especially the startups. It would be a shared infrastructure.

Dr Renu Swarup, the managing director of BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) in answer to a question said,” We don’t lack availability of intellect in the country but technology platform is required that we are now going to create.” “Even industry cannot affford to establish a platform technology,” she said.

She informs that the Mission would focus more on new vaccines, bio-therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices to better address the rising burden of diseases in the country. It will strengthen the entire product development value chain and accelerate research leads to product development, but most important is the creation of an echo-system which will continue to support a continupus pipeline of new products.

Currently Indian biopharmaceutical industry is around 10-15 years behind developed countries and faces stiff competition from China and Korea. According to the Global Innovation Index, India ranks 81 among 140 countries, way below China (rank 29) and South Korea (rank 14). Success of the Mission, therefore, will depend on how much and how fast, it pushes Indian researchers and entrepreneurs into an innovation spree.