When we look back on the current COVID-19 crisis in India, there’s no doubt that we’ll see that the crisis has resulted in several innovations, and perhaps even more importantly in new effective ways of working across sectorial boundaries. For a long time, India has faced challenges in implementing a triple helix model of innovation where academia, industry and government work closely together to foster economic and social development. Over the last few weeks, the scene has drastically changed in favor for a new approach that could potentially reinvigorate and transform India’s R&D landscape.
Just like the rest of the world, Covid-19 has brought India to a halt. India announced complete lockdown for its entire population of 1.3 billion people as early as when the infected count was less than 400. Normally, 70-90 per cent of India’s medical device components and chemical reagents are imported, but these imports have nearly stopped. This has pushed the government to rethink national plans, capacity and priorities and think more strategic and long-term. In his most recent speech to the nation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged scientists and researchers to come forward with innovative solutions to deal with the virus. It’s very interesting to note that research and innovation is at the absolute forefront of combating the crisis in India.
India’s response to Covid-19 has opened new channels for collaborative research and innovation, which is truly exciting. Indian Government, academia and the private sector are working on war footing to jointly develop innovative solutions, and Indian scientists are spearheading research projects cutting across different science and technology domains as well as application sectors.
Like other countries, India is now building up its own arsenal to fight the virus. India has a great network of labs and technology institutions and around 150 incubators with over 3,225 affiliated startups. Startups have a central position in the Indian fight against the virus. The Government recently launched a ‘Covid-19 Solution Challenge’ for startups to support scale-up of promising solutions, offering seed grants and scale capital to startups working on Covid-19. A whole network of suppliers and manufacturers has also been activated and now stand ready to kickstart production of new technology solutions. Large corporations, such as Mahindra, Tata Group and state-owned Bharat Electronics, are reconfiguring their plants to make products such as ventilators.
It is evident that tackling this unprecedented challenge requires a systems approach and the mobilization of stakeholders from various sectors and areas of science to respond in concerted efforts. Below we have collected four examples of how the Indian government, the private sector, and researchers have risen to the Covid challenge:
1. COVID-19 Task Force
India has set up a high-level task force to quickly advance the “Frontiers of science related to vaccines and drug testing”. The task force comprises of members from NITI Aayog (the Government’s premier think tank), Ministry of Ayush, Indian Council of Medical Research, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT). The task force will work in convergence with the industry and research community to aid the development of groundbreaking and cost-effective solutions which would prove effective against the pandemic. Its primary aim will be to support and speed up innovative work by academia and industry, as well as coordinate international efforts.
Furthermore, Indian Department of Biotechnology has been designated as the central co-ordination agency for the development of an Indian vaccine to fight Covid-19 globally. The high-level task force will be co-chaired by the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government Prof K Vijay Raghavan and Dr V K Paul from NITI Aayog
Playing a central role in the task force, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research has strategically re-organized itself to increase its capacity to more effectively pursue R&D, integrate R&D efforts into various sectors of the economy, scale up innovations, and deploy technological interventions for combating Covid-19.
2. Vaccine research and development
India has a good track record in vaccine development and production — for example, Rotavac was developed in India under the leadership of Dr MK Bhan from the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) to address rotavirus infections that cause severe diarrhea among young children. This vaccine, licensed in 2014, was a collaborative effort between academia, government and industry. Indian Department of Biotechnology is actively engaged in discussion with a number of Indian industries for vaccine development and trial. There are six Indian companies in the race for developing a vaccine for Covid-19joining global efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that’s infected more than 2 million people so far. Zydus Cadila is working on two different vaccines, while Serum Institute, Biological E, Bharat Biotech, Indian Immunologicals, and Mynvax are developing one vaccine each.
3. ‘Make in India’ testing kit
The indigenous Covid-19 kit developed by MyLab had come at a time when India was desperately looking to tackle the low testing rate for the virus. Founded in 2016, MyLab has created a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) kit — Mylab PathoDetect COVID-19 Qualitative PCR — which is manufactured domestically, has a local supply chain and is now approved by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The kit is said to be a quarter of the cost of international counterparts and can prove to be very effective not only in India, but globally in low and middle income countries. Another advantage of the new Indian kit is that the screening can be done within 2.5 hours which is much lower than the seven or eight hours taken by the kits procured by governments in other countries.
Covid-19 Tracking app
The Indian government recently launched the Covid-19 tracking app ‘Aarogya Setu’ that allows digital monitoring of movement of people in real-time and their contacts in hotspots. With over 50 million downloads in less than two weeks, the app has jumped to the top of Google Playstore. That’s the fastest download rate for any app in the world — even faster than Facebook. The app will include information on sample collection and testing centers, Covid-designated hospitals, isolation protocols and quarantine arrangements. A national telemedicine platform may also be integrated within the app so that people with any illness can consult a doctor remotely. The app was developed through a public-private partnership and citizens have volunteered to cooperate with the Government’s National Informatics Centre to develop user-centric content.
While real breakthrough solutions for Covid-19 is yet to be seen, there is hope that the deployment of solutions like the one above can help stem the Covid-19 crisis and support a strong and fast come back of the Indian economy. And from a more long-term perspective the crisis can potentially reinvigorate and transform India’s R&D landscape by giving rise to and nurturing new strong triple helix partnerships. A large number of Indian scientists, startup founders, top corporate executives, doctors and bureaucrats have combined their capabilities and resources to solve common problems. The OSI team is very happy to see that we are beginning to break silos and collaborate in new ways to address global challenges. Let’s use these great experiences to invigorate our innovation systems and build stronger triple helix partnerships between our countries.
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Fanny, Leena, Mini & Emma