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Newly Formed Empowered ‘Technology Group’ and COVID-19

Sunil Mani (mani@cds.edu) is director and Reserve Bank of India Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Janak Nabar heads the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research, Pune.

The role of the empowered “Technology Group” with respect to building and promoting health technologies is discussed and a possible road map is charted out.

 

In his third televised speech since the lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 12 May emphasised the ­notion of a technologically self-reliant India. Apparently, he referred to the term Atmanir­bhar Bharat at least 19 times in the 30-minute speech. However, an oft-­repeated complaint in India is that the country’s policy regime with respect to science and technology (S&T) has suffered from two major shortcomings. First, the country has been very slow in terms of having instruments of innovation policy that could identify and encourage local development of techno­logy to flourish. Second, is the contradictory nature of policies in India. There are many instan­ces of policies contradicting each other and thus resulting in a deleterious effect on policy outcomes.

Many of our important national S&T projects have not been taken to their logical completion—the National Civil Aircraft Development Project and the policy on nanotechnology, to name a few, are instances of very relevant research and development (R&D) projects that did not result in commercialised products and services. Despite a very sophisticated S&T establishment in the country whether in technology generation, standardisation or its diffusion, the country has lacked the benefit of having a real coordinating body to pull together different S&T acti­vities that are being pursued at the central and state levels, as well as those ­being pursued by industry. In this context the constitution of an empowered “Techno­logy Group,” in February 2020, to be chaired by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of ­India with 12 members, needs to be welcomed.

Capacities and Possibilities

The formation of such a group has the potential to play a truly transformative role for S&T policymaking and its implementation in the country. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of such a coordinating body assumes even greater significance. Recently released S&T indicators show that India’s R&D ­expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) has rem­ained at around 0.7%, through the period 2011–12 to 2018–19. Public spending on R&D continues to dominate the share in national spending on R&D at 52%, while industry accounts for around 41%, and the balance is accounted for by the higher education sector. Over the years, despite the low level of spending on R&D by the industry, India has shown its technological prowess in health-related technologies consisting of vaccines, therapeutic drugs and now gradually in medical devices. ­Indian firms, both in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector and the information technology (IT) services sector, have been making it to the list of the top 2,500 global R&D spenders according to the EU Industrial R&D Scoreboard data. When one considers the structure of ­industrial R&D in India, it is dominated by sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, IT services, and chemicals excluding fertilisers. Add India’s automotive sector to this and these four sectors account for around 60% of India’s industrial R&D spending. Industries such as pharma and IT services have assumed even greater importance in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The response from the public R&D laboratories, start-ups and industry in working on technologies and solutions to tackle the coronavirus shows that India is well-poised to capitalise on the technical ­ca­pabilities it has been investing in.

On 12 May, Prime Minister Modi anno­unced an economic package totalling `20 lakh crore, the details of which were provided by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman over the next few days. While the measures announced targeted households, especially migrants, the agri­culture sector, and the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector, the only long-lasting way of dealing with the negative effects of the virus would be to ensure that its spread is contained in the short term and that it is eventually eradicated in the long run. Otherwise, the peculiarities of the virus, which ­demand some form of social distancing, shall continue to hamper the normal conduct of business. The fight against the novel coronavirus offers the group an opportunity to systematically further ­India’s technological capabilities, starting with healthcare and IT services, and an opportunity to better align our economic policies with the country’s technology needs.

Some of the key activities, among other things that the group is expected to undertake, include advising the government on policy-related issues to enable research on emerging technologies across sectors, developing a road map for the indigenisation of key technologies, and also advising the government on its public technology procurement strategy. The five important problems in the techno­logy arena the group is supposed to address are: (i) silo-centric approaches to the development of technology; (ii) techno­logy standards either not developed or applied, leading to suboptimal industrial development; (iii) dual-use techno­logies not being optimally commercialised; (iv) R&D programmes not aligned to ­efforts of technology development; and (v) mapping of technologies important for applications in society and industry.

Given its mandate, the group could immediately consider drawing up a strategy to focus on health-related technologies—in particular focusing on (i) vaccines, (ii) generic version of therapeutic drugs that could be used for treating COVID-19, (iii) medical devices of various types, including diagnostic and personal protective equipment, and (iv) the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for diagnostic purposes as well as drug discovery. With respect to the first three technologies, India has a demonstrated advantage in its ability to design, manufacture and sell frugal versions of these technologies, while with respect to the fourth technology, India has the potential to excel in digital technologies given its leadership in IT services. We provide a road map below that the group could potentially consider.

With respect to a vaccine, India has ­immense potential to emerge as a contract manufacturer of vaccines. A vaccine is also the most effective and credible way of containing the pandemic, and the number of doses needed would be in billions. The Oxford Vaccine Group has tied up with Pune-based Serum Institute of India for the eventual manufacturing of the vaccine. About five Indian vaccine manufacturers are in the list of 123 ­potential vaccine developers and are ­focused on both the R&D as well as eventual manufacturing of the vaccines based on contracts from multinational corporations (MNCs).

Vaccine and Health Technologies

Indian vaccine manufacturers like the Serum Institute have put India on the map for the superior quality of vaccines produced as well as their low cost. The empowered group could focus its efforts to recommend measures related to infrastructure that would ensure the ease and scaling up of manufacturing the vaccine for COVID-19 once it is found. Another area of opportunity for India is in the R&D and eventual manufacturing of the generic versions of drugs that are found to be effective for treating the COVID-19. At the time of writing, the only drug that had been approved (granted an Emergency Use Authorisation) by the United States Food and Drug Administration is the antiviral drug, Remdesivir by Gilead Sciences, an American MNC. Four Indian pharma companies like ­Cipla, Hetero drugs, Jubilant and Mylan could potentially manufacture generic versions of this drug as Gilead has signed a licence agreement with them.

According to press reports, these licences would be royalty-free until the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the end of the public health emergency arising out of Covid-19, or until another pharmaceutical product or a vaccine is approved to treat or prevent the disease. However, unlike in the case of vaccines, the most important barrier here is the patent system. The group could consider this as an excellent opportunity to work with other countries to increase the flexibilities under the exi­sting international governance rules dealing with intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the context of pandemics.

In the case of medical devices, the group could focus on creating affordable and accessible healthcare through frugal engineering. The group could build on the success of the Stanford India ­Biodesign project or its successor, the School of International Design at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMs). A focus on medical devices would also require a focus on the electronics components needed to manufacture these innovative medical devices. Researching and manufacturing innovative portable medical devices would perhaps be a more prudent way of growing the medical devices sector as well as developing the electronics sector in India, especially given the demand for healthcare in ­India, the rising out of pocket expenditure on diagnostic tests, the rising cost of private healthcare, and the growing trend in preventive versus curative care.

Furthermore, the `6,000 crore investment in BharatNet, anno­unced in the government’s budget for fiscal year 2021, and which is expected to provide connectivity to health centres and other public institutions at the gram panchayat level, will be vital to the success of medical devices that could be operated in remote areas. Increased connectivity could also provide a boost to services like telemedicine and in turn lead to job creation. Importantly, the group could also encourage credible research teams to focus on the design and manufacture of medical equipment needed in the fight against COVID-19. For instance, perceiving a burgeoning demand for invasive ventilators, the government has encouraged all kinds of public sector institutions, such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Indian railways to work on the design and manufacture of ventilators. This would be an unnecessary aberration from their main line of activity as the ISRO should be focusing only on ­design and launching of satellites and satellite launch vehicles, while the Indian Railways should focus on modern locomotives of the semi high-speed variety.

The budget for fiscal year 2021 has also set aside around `8,000 crore for the National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications. Using part of this budget allocation, the group could work on promoting technologies that use AI in diagnostic healthcare as well as drug discovery as India looks to develop its own capabilities in digital technologies.

In Conclusion

Some of the major challenges before the group with respect to the health techno­logies mentioned above include ens­u­ring adequate funding support for these innovations, international govern­ance rules concerning patents and working to make them more flexible in the context of pandemics, and reducing the silo-centric approach to technology dev­elopment ac­ross different ministries, public institutions and industry in India. The success of the empowered “Techno­logy Group” will depend on its ability to provide a clear road map for India’s technology-led ­future. Getting the sequence right in ­devising and implementing policies for India’s technological development would be very important. For this, our economic policies too would need to be very closely aligned and supportive of the country’s technology needs.

 

Updated On : 20th Oct, 2020

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