The Indian pharma industry is the third-largest in the world, in terms of volume. However, the sad truth is that it is highly import-dependent. A case in point: around 90 per cent of APIs used to make antibiotics are imported, according to the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the unhealthy import-dependence of the domestic industry, as almost two-thirds of our drug intermediaries come from China. When faced with the possibility of being unable to receive these bulk drugs, the government and industry experienced a wake-up call to become more Aatma Nirbhar or self-reliant.
Scope to renovate
The current crisis may actually have come as a blessing in disguise for the pharma industry, as it gives us time to reflect on what we can do to become more self-reliant, revisit our current practices and reinvent ourselves to become Aatma Nirbhar. This will contribute to the self-reliance of our nation at large as it will make available the medicines and intermediaries needed to support a vibrant healthcare industry and promote good health, indigenously.
The biopharma industry is faced with a special opportunity. The current crisis has opened a window in which we can showcase our potential as viable and superior alternatives to APIs and synthetic drugs used within the pharma industry and even alternatives to end products such as antibiotics to deliver more holistic health outcomes.
Approach to become Aatma Nirbhar
It is high time that the biotechnology department of the Government of India forms a committee of interested large companies as well as highly skilled MSMEs in the biopharma sector, along with talent from research institutes and technology institutes to create a roadmap or blueprint for the self-reliant future of the biopharma sector. Once implemented successfully, it will support self-reliance within the larger pharma and healthcare sectors and the country at large.
Key elements of this roadmap
Creating awareness about and demand for bio-pharma products: The current crisis has altered the demand-supply dynamics of the pharma industry, making it the perfect time to foster awareness of the facets and benefits of various bio-pharma products (enzymes, probiotics, nutraceuticals, etc.), which can be used as substitutes for intermediaries or finished products. This will build robust demand and encourage MSMEs as well as large companies to undertake bio-pharma research and production. Pharma nodal agencies could work on creating the right awareness.
Facilitating networking of bio-pharma stakeholders: Due to the lack of a network, many bio-pharma MSMEs are working in vacuums, reinventing technology and rediscovering knowledge which may be available within the sector, producing molecules that they assume will be demanded in the market, scaling up based on their estimation of market size, etc. If there was a common platform that brought all stakeholders together – including researchers, academics, upstream and downstream companies, policymakers, marketing consultants, etc. – the sector would be more efficient and develop more systematically and rapidly.
Systematic investment, incentives and research: Biopharma is a very research-intensive segment with long gestation periods between the early research stage and final commercial launch of products. Since it deals with unveiling the beneficial effects of microbes and bacteria, the research extends over long periods of time as it involves strain origin and isolation, undertaking clinical trials and testing, commercialisation, etc. This entails extensive investments before any returns can be expected. At present, a number of Indian companies depend on sourcing the strains as well as scientific and clinical studies undertaken from other countries, to speed up the time to commercialisation and cut costs. For self-sufficiency, Indian companies need support in terms of systematic investment and incentives to conduct systematic research.
In addition, there are costs and challenges associated with technology, machinery and issues related to IPRs and biosimilars. As a result of all this, for a biopharma concern to become viable, long term, systematic investments and planned support packages (in the form of tax breaks and modifications in the GST structure) are essential.
Crafting a comprehensive plan with suitable packages and guidelines: It is not just large companies or MNCs that can contribute to India becoming self-reliant in the biopharma sector. MSMEs can make a big difference too. There will be clear synergies if we all work in equilibrium. For this, the government has to formulate a plan which supports and incentivises the role of all stakeholders in the biopharma sector, enabling it to grow and flourish as a homogeneous ecosystem.
Themes for discussion
While the biotechnology department of the Government of India should take the initiative to bring together a network of stakeholders, conduct intensive research on what their core competencies and market aspirations are and provide the right plans and packages, we, as industry participants, can begin by changing our mindsets to become more aatmanirbhar.
Let’s strive for…
- More cooperative approach rather than a competitive approach to progress for greater overall efficiency
- More self-sufficiency and export-orientation and less import-dependence so that we are never caught on the wrong foot again under crisis or normal conditions
- Greater focus on R&D and less attraction to lift ideas and processes from other nations as it is the best way to build a stronger base for the sector
- Attraction of skills and talent by providing scope for intellectually stimulating world-class workspaces to encourage a reverse brain-drain and benefit from quality talent resources that accelerate growth
- Creation of jobs indigenously rather than outsourcing through imports
The sooner we begin working together to create synergies, the better. Although we may be reinventing ourselves as a reaction to the crisis, let us prepare ourselves proactively so that our vision of self-reliance prevails even once the crisis is behind us.