Top govt scientists tell MPs Covid-19 vaccine at least a year away

The topic of the meeting was ‘science and technological preparedness for Covid-19 and beyond’
The government’s top scientists and officials on Friday told a parliamentary committee that a vaccine to cure Covid-19 could take at least a year to develop, and that they said was their most optimistic assessment.

The panel of lawmakers was told that India, a leading manufacturer of vaccines and generic medicines, with nearly 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines developed here, is expected to play a key role in the worldwide race to develop a vaccine.

However, the reliance of Indian pharma industry on Chinese APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) was recognised as a “huge strategic concern” with few short-term solutions.

With some of the best Indian students unable to leave for studying in foreign universities because of Covid-19, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) told the committee how this offered an opportunity to check brain drain.

The CSIR suggested increasing the number of post-doctoral research fellowships from 300 to 800 every year, starting from 2021, and also the number of PhD scholars through CSIR-NET examination from 5,000 to 7,500. The proposal would require an additional budget of Rs 2,388.22 crore over the next five years, it said.

The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) suggested setting up a “strategic think tank for science and technology” to plan for future pandemics, and also look into such moral and ethical questions as genome editing.

Only six of the 30 members of the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and climate change could attend its meeting on Friday morning.

This somewhat vindicated committee chairperson Jairam Ramesh’s demand to Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu to allow virtual meetings of parliamentary committees.

All six who attended the meeting, including those from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were unanimous that virtual meetings should be allowed.

The committee met for three hours from 11 a.m. The topic of the meeting was ‘science and technological preparedness for Covid-19 and beyond’.

Officials from the Department of Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology, CSIR, DSIR, and Principal Scientific Advisor to the government K Vijay Raghavan briefed the MPs.

They shared details on the earliest possible availability of a vaccine, as also an overview on drugs and health equipment.

The committee was told by scientists that early 2021 is latest a vaccine could come up anywhere in the world, provided that all human trials are successful. However, general consensus was that even a year from now is an optimistic scenario.

On import of Chinese APIs by Indian pharma industry, officials said this was a policy challenge with no short-term solutions. Indian domestic pharma industry would need to invest in making APIs indigenously.

As a strategy for preparing for future pandemics, the DSIR recommended strengthening academic research and development (R&D) institutions. It said there was a need to set up advanced centres for excellence in areas of virology and infectious diseases.

It also suggested strengthening industry-academic partnership in R&D and innovation. It said that CSIR laboratories can be knowledge partners with industry in key areas.

It recommended promoting of start-ups and MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) to increase “ease of doing science” and “ease of doing business” to accelerate translation of the know-how and knowledge base.

Members were informed that the CSIR is trying to promote rural entrepreneurship through its ‘tech@villages’ programme.

The ‘strategic think tank on S&T’ should be set up to look at policies that are dynamic, evidence based and suitable to the Indian milieu, the DSIR submitted in its presentation.

It said the think tank should consist of both young and experienced, with diversity of disciplines, including from social sciences. This would help in integration of health research and R&D in science and technology and adoption of digital technologies. It said India needs a strong digital policy framework for healthcare and S&T.

While the budget session of Parliament was truncated on March 23, neither have any of the 24 department related parliamentary standing committees held their meetings since. The first to take place was the meeting of the committee on petroleum on July 7.

After Friday’s meeting, Venkaiah Naidu tweeted that he was glad the committees have resumed functioning.

To this, Ramesh replied, “I would still request you, Sir, to allow virtual meetings given that Parliament is unlikely to meet for the next month at least.”

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