Opinion

India is no leader in vaccine research

Thomas Sajan/Titto Idicula | Updated on January 20, 2021

Innovation The faultlines   -  T. Narayan

The country may remain essentially a mass-producer of Covid vaccines, rather than a developer

Perhaps never since the Cold War has winning a scientific battle become central to the pursuit of global dominance. The Western world, despite its initial laxity in responding to the pandemic, is reasserting its scientific hegemony by swiftly developing vaccines against Covid-19 in record time. Russia and China have also joined the race for developing a safe and effective antidote at an incredible pace.

By aligning with the vaccine developers, India’s pharmaceutical companies play a crucial role in meeting the massive global requirement. Bill Gates recently stated that the Indian pharmaceutical industry is equipped to mass-produce Covid-19 vaccines for the whole world. At this juncture, when the country has launched the world’s largest vaccination drive, it is worth asking whether India’s position in the vaccine race is a reflection of the nation’s innovation potential.

The promising vaccines that have already passed the Phase-3 clinical trials — Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford — are all developed with novel vaccine platforms making use of mRNA or viral-vector technologies. India’s prominent indigenous candidate Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, is made using the older-platform of inactivated virus.

Another Indian drug firm Zydus Cadila’s vaccine candidate ZyCoV-D is made using the novel plasmid DNA platform. However, both the indigenous candidates are yet to pass the crucial Phase-3 clinical trials, and efficacy remains unknown.

“The fast development of novel platform vaccines and reliable clinical testing are clear reflections of the overall scientific competence of the nations involved. Besides the state-of-the-art technologies, it demands robust clinical testing that involves a globally trustworthy database. India struggles in all these capabilities, despite having a handful of competent research labs and potential scientists”, says Rajeevkumar Raveendran Nair, a scientist working on viral vectors at the renowned Kavli Institute in Trondheim, Norway.

Therefore, regardless of the political claims, India´s role in vaccine development is likely to end up as a mass-producer and mass-consumer of antidotes developed elsewhere. Such a scenario in the vaccine race reflects the dispiriting situation pertaining to research and innovation in India.

The Nature Index that measures high-quality research outputs from various countries shows that publications from India are quite unimpressive and just one-tenth of China’s. What makes the Indian situation particularly disturbing is that even IITs, which produce arguably some of the best students in the world, are not in a position to trigger cutting-edge research within the country.

“The same engineers we train in India go abroad and do fantastic innovation. It’s more about the system,” said former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan while answering a student’s question on “Why India is not innovating, but Indians are innovators?”

Lacks a research ecosystem

Contrary to the common belief, innovative research does not emanate primarily from the individual brilliance of staggering geniuses, but stems from a vibrant ecosystem. A good research ecosystem requires an international and multidisciplinary environment that promotes teamwork and collaborative studies. All the successful Covid-19 vaccines that passed the Phase-3 trials emanate from such ecosystems — designed and developed by multi-disciplinary research teams and passing multicentre international clinical trials.

Unfortunately, India’s innovation policies do not focus primarily on developing a research ecosystem, but rather relies on capitalising the ‘brightest of the bright’ minds. The Prime Ministers Research Fellowship (PMRF) — one of the flagship programmes under the Modi government created to “attract the best talent into research thereby realising the vision of development through innovation” — is perhaps the best example. The programme offers nearly 2.5 times higher scholarship to a few PhD students at some of the premier institutes.

There is no point in expecting a superbly talented, overcompensated doctoral student to do innovations when no research ecosystem is in place. It would have been beneficial if the Central government had instead utilised the funds to establish favourable schemes to stimulate multidisciplinary research teams at country’s top science and technology institutions, including doctoral fellowships for international students.

There is also an urgent need to significantly increase the number of researchers as there exists a severe shortage of trained researchers in India. According to a UNESCO estimate, the number of researchers in R&D per million people in India is just 253 — a highly disturbing scenario since the equivalent figures for the developed Western nations range between 4,000 and 7,000. Even India’s BRICS counterparts — Brazil (888), Russia (2,784), China (1,307), and South Africa (518) — are far ahead.

A long way to go

The race for the Covid-19 vaccine is in many ways a litmus test for the research and development capability of the nations involved. It gives a clear indication that, at various levels, India has a long way to go to catch up with the world’s most innovative countries.

Sajan is an anthropologist with a PhD on the socio-political dimensions of viral epidemics. Idicula is a consultant neurologist at St. Olav’s University Hospital (NTNU) in Norway.

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Published on January 20, 2021
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