Why India Must Take Lead in COVID Fight and Boost R&D Expenditure

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Just six years ago, we woke up to a polio-free India. India beat polio against all odds – a feat that was termed “one of the biggest achievements in global health”. But the battle against polio was not won easily. It took years of consistent government investment and mobilisation of resources to get a new oral vaccine, facilitate mass vaccination, run targeted public awareness campaigns, and develop strong public-private partnerships.

Today, as we stand at the brink of what threatens to be a prolonged battle against the novel coronavirus, let’s remember that while short-term solutions are necessary to fight the daily battle against the spread, we won’t win the war unless we seek long-term solutions.

Key among them is investing in Research and Development (R&D) to drive innovation and strengthen the public health infrastructure.

Merely depending on some pharma major somewhere or some foreign university lab to come up with a solution is not enough. India will have to take leadership in this battle.

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In COVID Fight, What Worked For China, Singapore, South Korea?

COVID-19 was first recorded in Wuhan, China and in a matter of months, has spread to most countries, infecting over 2.8 million and killing nearly 193,000. We’ve witnessed a diversity of responses to contain it. China was the early epicentre, but has since slowed the growth of new cases. While this is in part due to its aggressive containment measures, distinct developments have given China a slight edge. First, post- SARS and H1N1, China committed itself to accelerating Research & Development (R&D) efforts.

In fact, in the last decade, China’s expenditure on R&D as a proportion of its GDP has grown four-fold.

Second, this commitment has created a conducive environment for product-focused public health efforts.

Singapore has also reaped the benefits of investing in technology. Despite being hit earliest by COVID-19, Singapore’s existing technology infrastructure allowed it to employ innovations like AI-driven smartphone temperature checkers, contact tracing apps, nucleic acid tests, etc. All of this was made possible because of an existing recognition that investment in product-focused R&D provides long-term gains, one that is well-illustrated by its ability to conduct over 21,000 tests in just three months. Of course, this is much lower than South Korea’s statistics, which has tested 9,800 per million, but it’s miles ahead of India’s testing ratio.

In the immediate term, India too needs to up the ante, requisition support from private sector laboratories, and invest in large-scale testing and surveillance efforts.

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Why India Should Spend Much More on R&D

In the recent past, two India-made vaccines were pre-qualified by WHO – among them the world’s first conjugate vaccine against typhoid. India-made generic drugs are saving millions of lives the world over. But compared to the rate of its development, India underspends on R&D.

In fact, India spends just 0.6 percent of its GDP on R&D, which is one of the lowest amongst the BRICS countries – and is well below such spending by the US (2.8 percent), China (2.1 percent), Israel (4.3 percent) and Korea (4.2 percent).

Despite glaring public health challenges, the budget for its apex medical research organisation is one of the lowest among the 8 principal science government agencies. In 2018, India received approximately one-fiftieth of the patent applications filed by China.

India’s low R&D investment is further problematised by the fact that unlike other countries where research is funded in equal measure by the private sector, much of the R&D funding here is provided by the government.

India needs to double its expenditure and spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on R&D.

Increased R&D investments can help accelerate product-focused interventions – including the development of critical new vaccines. In fact, increased spending on vaccine-related R&D is one of the most cost-effective investments that countries can make to safeguard public as well as national economic health.

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Amid Corona, Important to Recognise That Innovation & Health Infrastructure Are Intertwined

Recent developments have been encouraging. The Science & Engineering Research Board, an autonomous institution under the Department of Science & Technology has invited proposals from academic and research institutions to accelerate efforts to develop new vaccines and diagnostic tools for COVID-19.

The prime minister also appealed to researchers and scientists to come together and channel all efforts to develop an effective vaccine to fight COVID-19.

However, we still need tangible commitments to ensure consistent prioritisation and sustained investment in vaccine research over several years – particularly given the not-so-recent Nipah and Zika outbreaks in India.

COVID-19 has laid bare the debilitating effects of an unknown pathogen.

While one cannot deny the importance of strengthening health infrastructure, it is important that we recognise that innovation and health infrastructure are intertwined.

Now more than ever, we must step up our commitment to invest in product-focused R&D, especially vaccine research, to offset and avert damage caused by new and existing infectious diseases.

(Dr Amir Ullah Khan is a professor of development economics at the MCRHRDI, Government of Telangana. He has worked on development issues primarily in the health, education and agriculture sectors. Dr Khan has worked for the Ministry of Finance, Government of India and the UNDP at Project LARGE (Legal Adjustments and Reforms for Globalising the Economy). He is a former Deputy Director and policy advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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