We need to test more people, so opening it up for private labs was a very important step. Next, the government needs to allow (COVID-19) treatment by private hospitals because we are going to be overwhelmed by the need for hospital beds. There are simply not enough beds in government hospitals. We will need a large number of medical professionals and without the private sector's involvement, the government won’t be able to expand capacity.
What role can corporate India play to contain the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have to prevent the spread without a vaccine and the least that every corporate can do is to ensure that it reduces the office-going or factory going staff to the minimum. Also, those who can afford to shut down should do that for two weeks. Corporates can contribute to a large number of financial needs related to control the spread of the disease. CSR (corporate social responsibility) should be directed towards testing, purchasing ventilators, and all the resources required for dealing with the disease. This is about the whole of India cooperating in terms of the lockdown. Until we get a treatment, it is difficult to contain this pandemic. So the only way to control it is to have a massive lockdown, which is what the government has done. Except for essential services, everyone should be asked to work from home.
What is the rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19 that Biocon is working on?
There are several tests which can be developed to detect the virus. Indian labs have done well by coming up with real-time PCR kits. Our lab and players like CoSara can manufacture hundreds of thousands of kits per week. Hopefully, those kits will be able to increase the testing significantly. There are also antibody-based kits, which allow rapid tests. They can quickly tell three things -- one whether you are infected; two, whether you are infected and recovering; and whether you have recovered. These kits are even more accurate than PCR tests as they also indicate the phase of recovery. We are making efforts at Syngene to develop these antibody-based tests.
How important is it to create a database of COVID-19 patients?
We need to learn from the COVID-19 situation and get well-analysed data to understand who did badly and who did well. Epidemiological data is very important in a pandemic as it explains how the disease spread, why it spread, was it to do with living conditions, poor sanitation, poor health or ageing. All these need to be analysed. If we don’t have a database, which captures all of these, we will just get numbers.
What should be done to strengthen the pharma and biopharma industry to make them ready for a pandemic in the future?
Every country in the world today realises that it has neglected communicable diseases. Most of the R&D budget is only going into researching non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and neurological diseases. Very little money goes into infectious diseases because it is considered to be a developing world problem. The world has now realised that because of travel and globalisation, infectious diseases can spread fast. Advanced countries, such as Italy, the US, and France, are reeling from the spread of COVID-19 and this shows their unpreparedness. Therefore, it’s really important to research infectious diseases and be prepared for the future and come up with a rapid response to the next epidemic. We need to invest a lot in life sciences, and areas of infectious diseases and microbial-borne diseases. Companies
need to be incentivised and supported by the government for this.
What will the post-COVID-19 world look like?
I hope we become a cleaner country and think of work-from-home kind of models much more seriously. I also hope washing of hands regularly becomes a post-COVID-19 necessity.