India has been at the forefront of the global pharmaceutical and healthcare industry’s fight against Covid-19. As the pandemic left the world in disarray, the Indian pharma industry rose to the challenge and quickly developed cost-effective diagnostics, vaccines, and therapies for millions of people at home and across the world.
While Indian drug makers took on the pandemic head-on by ramping up drug innovation and production, they continued to supply a global patient pool with a diverse range of medicines to prevent and treat non-Covid-19 health threats such as cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, HIV infections, malaria, tuberculosis, etc.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser Anthony Fauci acknowledged the role played by the industry, saying: “India’s contributions to the global scientific knowledge are well known to all, with strong government support and a vibrant biopharma sector, this knowledge is already yielding solutions to Covid-19 prevention and care.”
In 2021, India supplied 115 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to developing countries, of which almost 70 million were in the form of grants.
Thinking Fast, Acting Fast
Protecting a billion-plus population from a pandemic in a country that traditionally spends insufficiently on research was never going to be easy. Yet, the Indian pharmaceutical industry proved itself resilient and resourceful. As early as March 2020, the industry set up consortiums to swiftly pool complementary skill sets. Task forces hunted for promising leads for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. R&D labs, academic institutions, start-ups, and small enterprises came forward with innovative ideas, found industry partners, and scaled up quickly.
India is today the world’s second largest manufacturer of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. From an actual shortage to manufacturing 200,000 PPE kits and 200,000 N-95 masks every day, India took less than a year to accomplish its Atmanirbhar vision.
The industry delivered, first with diagnostic tests, then with PPEs, masks, and ventilators, followed by antipyretics, antimalarials, antivirals, steroids, and antibiotics, and finally with vaccines. At the same time, the country was able to build a robust information technology backbone to track and trace infections, create databases and real-time dashboards to map the pandemic, and deploy vaccines at scale.
To minimise disruption because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown in India, the industry adopted innovative ways to support physicians and ensure that patients continued to receive lifesaving medicines. Many companies set up helplines for patients and their field staff worked diligently during the lockdown to facilitate medicine supplies to far-flung areas, ensuring the well-being of patients.
Repositioning ‘Brand India’
India’s pharmaceutical industry, ranked third worldwide in terms of volume, is the largest supplier of generic drugs globally. We produce 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines and account for 60-80 per cent of the UN’s annual vaccine procurement. India is also emerging as a significant supplier of biosimilars such as insulins, therapeutic antibodies, etc. In 2020-21, we exported over $24 billion worth of pharmaceuticals to the world.
India’s reputation as the ‘Pharmacy to the World’ has come on the back of long-term investments. In the last 10 years, the Indian pharma industry has invested at least $10 billion in setting up global scale manufacturing infrastructure. Today, the country has more than 3,000 facilities approved by various regulatory bodies of which ~400 have U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance.
India’s pharmaceutical exports are not only 11th in terms of dollar value of exports, they are also amongst the cheapest due to our relative cost advantage.
The Covid-19 pandemic is an inflection point for India to introspect on its global leadership potential. We have a unique opportunity to position Indian pharma’s global equity to reflect innovation, scale, affordability, and impact. We need to transition from being a volume player to a substantial value player in global markets by leveraging scientific know-how and enhanced research and development. In the post-Covid-19 world, India must identify its true strengths and develop a global brand position that effectively conveys the value addition we provide to the world. We must project the country internationally as a ‘valuable’ partner rather than just a ‘low cost’ vendor. While investing in opportunities that can be scaled up at a reasonable cost, we also must build strong intellectual property.
Several policy boosts by the government have potentially set the stage for the growth of the pharma sector. The Union Budget for FY22 more than doubled the outlay for healthcare including allocations towards Covid-19 vaccination and initiatives to strengthen the country’s primary, secondary and tertiary health infrastructure.
Moreover, the government’s Performance Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme can bolster local manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and bring within our reach the vision of achieving self-reliance as a nation. The scheme’s focus on biopharmaceuticals and complex generic drugs plays to the Indian pharma industry’s evolving strengths. The associated incentives, coupled with homegrown cutting-edge capabilities, can help India stay ahead of global competitors. The recent thinking around Research Linked Incentives to drive innovation and garner a greater share of the value of the global pharma market needs to translate urgently into policy implementation.
The Indian pharmaceutical industry needs to capitalise on this momentum to establish ‘Brand India’ as one that stands for value, innovation and the highest impact in global healthcare.
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