The ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis has resulted in the creation of an "ecosystem" of innovation in India, Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has said ahead of the annual India-US bio-pharma summit in Boston next week.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, 68, is one of the key speakers at the 15th edition of the annual virtual summit on June 22 hosted by the USA India Chambers of Commerce. The other star-studded speakers include Dr Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer; Dr Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health; Dr Janet Woodcock, Acting Commissioner, US Food and Drug Administration; and Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog.
"The whole intent (of the more than a decade old annual India-US bio pharma summit) is to catalyse an innovation ecosystem in India. I think, COVID-19 has actually created the ecosystem," she told PTI in an interview.
COVID-19, she, noted, has actually resulted in innovative vaccines being produced, such as Covaxin, Genova mRNA programme, and many other programmes that the Indian vaccine makers have licensed and developed in the country.
Then, of course, the whole clinical research ecosystem has been created because we've had so many clinical trials in India, whether it is for new repurpose drugs or vaccines...basically bridging trials, a lot of clinical trials have also happened in India, said the executive chairperson and founder of Biocon, a top biotechnology company based in Bangalore, noting that clinical trials were banned in India at one stage.
"And then when the whole environment opened up for clinical trials, there were not enough trials going on. Now suddenly, a whole bunch of clinical trials have gone on. A lot of clinical sites have opened. A lot of investigator-initiated studies have started."
I think the whole understanding that you've just got to get into clinical trials and clinical research, to actually address a large number of unmet needs is now beginning to dawn on the Indian innovation system, she said.
She noted that India has a large number of incubators, where they are developing some very innovative programmes.
"There is VC funding now getting into those programmes. So slowly, that ecosystem has been created," the billionaire entrepreneur said, adding that companies from India have started US operations to raise funding and are becoming a part of the US' innovation ecosystem.
The COVID-19 crisis, she observed, has also brought the pharma companies from India and the US together.
Citing examples, she said, Novavax has partnered with Serum Institute. The Baylor Institute has partnered with Biological-E, Johnson and Johnson has partnered with Biological-E and contracted manufacturing their vaccine.
Then there are many other programmes that have been licensed from US academic centres, Ms Mazumdar-Shaw said.
The nasal vaccine that Bharat Biotech is developing has been licensed from the University of Wisconsin. A lot of that kind of partnership and collaborations are ongoing, she said, adding, COVID-19 has definitely brought a lot of spotlights on to those kinds of opportunities .
One of the major challenges of the global bio-pharmaceutical industry was the disruption of global supply chains. And one of them was the raw material supply chain required for vaccine production, the Biocon head said.
India, she said, was dependent on the US for raw materials for vaccine manufacturing. Recently, the US and India came together and the ban on supply of the raw materials was revoked, paving the way for Indian vaccine manufacturers to produce the jabs required for global markets.
Today, India has been recognised as one of the largest producers of vaccines in the world. They (the Indian pharma companies) were limited in terms of their vaccine capacity because of some of these constraints. But now with the US opening up that kind of supply of products to vaccine manufacturers, they have also enabled the production of vaccines for global markets, Ms Mazumdar-Shaw said.
Responding to a question, she said India and the US need to make sure that there is free sharing of knowledge on technologies and products and any kind of export ban be lifted. That would be a very good policy for both the countries to adopt.
"The fact that there's already a natural collaboration happening between Indian companies and the US companies and academic institutions. Ultimately it is really about having access to each other's markets, because India is a huge market and so is the US," she said.
Ms Mazumdar-Shaw said while most Indian genetic companies are dependent on the US market, a lot of American companies are also looking at India as a market that is important in the future.
"From that point of view, it's a symbiotic and win-win kind of an opportunity for both the countries," she said.
Observing that the second wave of COVID-19 is receding and the numbers are coming down very rapidly, Ms Mazumdar-Shaw said India has learned many lessons from this public health crisis.
Every country has learned lessons in COVID-19. One is that you cannot be complacent. Secondly, there are going to be waves of the pandemic. So just because one wave recedes, doesn't mean that another wave won't happen. Thirdly, you got to be in a state of preparedness all the time. You cannot be complacent.
Fourthly, you must have very strong surveillance measures. Because that is something which every country has not done very well, and it has got surprised by an outbreak, which has suddenly led to another wave, she said.
Ms Mazumdar-Shaw said any government needs to make sure that it calibrate the opening up of the economy and adopt COVID-19 appropriate behaviour.
"You must be very vigilant about any outbreaks anywhere. Because small outbreaks can really start becoming very serious if you ignore them. These are some of the learnings. But most importantly, the world has realised that by vaccinating dense populations that have high caseload, they're able to basically bring down and manage the pandemic much better than if you just tried to vaccinate everyone," she said.
Noting that healthcare costs are very challenging right now, Ms Mazumdar-Shaw said products like generics and biosimilars are going to be very helpful and they will also contain the healthcare costs.
"Indian pharma companies will continue to basically address these healthcare needs... From that point of view, I see that right now all the focus has been on COVID, but we've also neglected a lot of other disease areas. Now that the economy has opened, hospitals have opened...you're going to see a huge demand for many, many of these products (generics and biosimilars)," she said.