India is key to global battle against Covid-19 – analysis
I was last in India in November. Back then, my meetings were on topics like financial services, rural poverty, and philanthropy. No one even mentioned the word “pandemic”. Just six months later, there is little more talk now, with the world shaken by disease, causing human, economic and social misery on a scale that most of us have never experienced in our lives.
As Bill Gates shared with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, India’s response to Covid-19 to date is encouraging. The actions taken so far have kept the loss of lives and livelihoods well below those experienced in countries in Europe and the United States (USA). Our foundation supports this national response with technical assistance, digital tools, training for health workers and other programs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But like any other country in the world, India’s weapons against the virus are mainly limited to measures such as physical distancing, closing of shops, orders to stay home and suspend travel. That’s because there are no medications to treat the disease, and there is no vaccine to prevent people from getting it in the first place.
The good news is that India is also responding to this global challenge. And the genius of its scientists, inventors, and engineers, the ability of its drug makers, its ability to meet the highest drug safety standards, and the collaborative culture put it at the forefront of the race to rescue the world from this pandemic.
Finally, beating Covid-19 will require innovation to get the solutions we need; equity to ensure they are affordable, available and accessible to all who need them; and global cooperation because this is too immense a challenge for a country or a company to do alone. Just consider what India has already accomplished on these fronts, and it is clear that this is your time to lead.
When it comes to innovation, India is already a major player in global health research and development. Thanks to vaccines developed by Indian companies such as Serum Institute, BioE, and Bharat Biotech, with which our foundation has partnered, fewer children worldwide are never dying of diseases such as measles, pneumonia, and rotavirus. This experience gives the Indian vaccine industry a significant advantage in the development of cost-effective and quality-assured vaccines as it focuses on Covid-19.
Today, Indian companies have 30 potential vaccines in their pipes, with several of the most promising backed by government funding. Our foundation is partnering with the biotechnology department, the Indian Council for Medical Research and the office of the Chief Scientific Adviser to provide information from our global research and development work that could inform India’s vaccine development efforts.
And it’s not just about vaccines. India already manufactures many antiviral drugs that could be reused and expanded for use in mild cases of Covid-19. Our foundation is also working with Indian pharmaceutical companies to explore the potential of transferring drug production techniques created by American pharmaceutical giants to Indian plants for global manufacturing and supply.
Then there is the issue of equity. With the ability not only to develop vaccines and drugs, but also a proven track record of manufacturing them to a high standard, in large volumes, and at low cost, India is critical to saving millions of lives in the poorest countries.
Beyond vaccines and treatment, India can offer unique solutions to the world. For example, the rapid development and deployment of affordable diagnostics and medical devices from basic test kits to high-end ventilators and medical equipment that are particularly suitable for use in rural and remote villages without electricity or regular power supply.
There is also a clear role for advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence to improve diagnosis and contact tracking. Indian startups have been successfully experimenting with these efforts for a while, and these technologies could be crucial for front-line workers, especially where there is a severe shortage of doctors, radiologists, and other specialists.
Finally, in global collaboration, India has seen excellent results through cooperation with various international organizations, private companies, public sector research institutes and academics. The rotavirus vaccine, ROTAVAC, for example, is a joint venture involving the Indian government, Bharat Biotech, the international non-profit PATH, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. USA, The National Institutes of Health and others. If there is a breakthrough in worldwide research and development efforts for Covid-19, Indian manufacturers have demonstrated the collaboration necessary to manufacture large quantities of cost-effective vaccines to deliver to a waiting world.
India, along with our foundation, is also a founding member of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), which oversees a global effort towards a Covid-19 vaccine. And the country also has a role to play in multilateral efforts that are critical in sending this virus to the history books.
It is the right time for India to play a leading role in the fight against Covid-19. It has all the capacity and capacity necessary to do so. And as someone who has seen its remarkable transformation for over a decade, I am more convinced than anyone of India’s strengths and potential. Now we have to make the most of them. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is ready as a partner to help India find a global solution to this global crisis.
Mark Suzman is Executive Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The opinions expressed are personal.