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Pandemic: When the going gets tough, innovators step up their game

New Delhi | Mumbai: As countries scrambled to find medical essentials for frontline workers and patients fighting the pandemic, India’s healthcare entrepreneurs and industry stepped in to fill the shortage. From diagnostic makers developing RT-PCR testing kits in record time to manufacturers of personal protection equipment (PPE) and N95 masks, companies revamped assembly lines to expedite manufacturing.

Indian diagnostic companies had experience in developing test assays for dengue, HIV, TB and H1N1, but with Covid-19 the delay in getting hold of the genetic code of SARS-Cov2 meant the Indian government, in the initial months of the pandemic, had to wait on imported RT-PCR kits that were expensive with world- wide shortage. In March, the In- dian Council of Medical Research placed an order of one mil- lion probes from Germany. Then, Pune’s Mylab became the first company to get its RT-PCR test validated by the ICMR. “Our advisors’ foresight to focus on Covid tests before a single case was identified in India helped us get a head start,” said Hasmukh Rawal, MD of Mylab Diagnostics.

On the numbers side, we have already touched more than 1 crore lives in India alone along with contributing to India’s diplomatic help to neighbouring nations such as Nepal and Bhutan, Rawal added. Likewise, India has traditionally been importing ventilators from Europe and China to meet domestic requirements. Recognizing the need for ventilators, the government banned the export of ventilators a day before the 21-day lockdown on March 25, 2020. Companies such as Skanray, Mahindra and Mahindra, the Tatas and Bhel came together to develop indigenously made ventilators.

The situation has since reversed and Skanray founder Vishwaprasad Alva told ET that they are requesting the government to allow exports as the local demand has dried up. An official from the health ministry said that in areas such as PPE kits and N95 masks India went from being a net importer to an exporter. The health ministry said local manufacturers exported 23 lakh PPE kits in July, when the government allowed sale of medical coveralls to foreign entities. The textiles ministry engaged local manufacturers to bring equipment for the manufacture of PPE kits.

While 4 million PPE kits were procured from imports, a major supply of 16 million PPE coveralls for pandemic manage- ment was produced locally. But by far the most awaited in- novation is on the vaccine front. There are over 20 vaccine candidates under development in India at various stages of development for Covid-19. Four of them are in an advanced stage. Companies such as Bharat Biotech and, Biological E are in late stages. Zydus and Genova are trying their hand on the new-age vaccine platform such as DNA and mRNA vaccines.

“Having a home- grown vaccine is top priority of the government and the department. We have supported 19 vaccine- based proposals under the DBT-BIRAC Research Consortium Initiative. A diverse portfolio of vaccine candidates has been backed under the National Biopharma Mission and Ind-CEPI Mission,” said Renu Swarup, secretary, department of biotechnology. “This is vaccine 4.0; the mRNA vaccines are made synthetic in nature and do not require any egg or host to manufacture. Hence, they can be easily scaled up, and the entire manufacturing process can be completed in 6-7 hours,” said Sanjay Singh, CEO of Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, earlier this month.

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