INDIAN PHARMA & COVID-19

India's pharmaceutical industry has for years provided the developing world with affordable medications. Now, it may play a part in giving the world a vaccine for COVID-19.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the World Government Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Christopher Pike


With the spread of COVID-19 and the ongoing race for a vaccine or effective treatment against the new coronavirus, attentions have been drawn to one of the only pharmaceuticals hubs in the world which has the capacity to mass produce billions of units of such a pharmaceutical product: India.

Since the mid-1960s, India has made a name for itself as a manufacturing center for pharmaceuticals. By manufacturing patented international products under license and reverse-engineering generic drugs, the Indian pharmaceutical industry has turned the country into “the pharmacy of the world."

Thanks to the low cost of manufacturing in India and advancements in bioscience in the country, India has become the world's leading manufacturer of generic drugs in five decades, with the industry's value growing from zero to over USD33 billion.

Exporting over USD11.7 billion worth of pharmaceutical products since the early 2010s, India had raised its pharma exports to USD17.27 billion by 2018, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBF). The figure was forecasted to pass the USD20 billion mark by 2020.

However that forecast was made before the new coronavirus showed up and, therefore, did not take into account the possibility of India's pharma industry playing a role in the mass production of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, which can raise the value of exports even higher.

In any case, India's market share in the industry will be roughly 40% by the end of the year. This means that, quite probably, a notable portion of the prescription or over-the-counter drugs that you take are produced somewhere in India, much in the same way that many of your electronic devices were (most likely) made in China.

Local producers dominate the sector, with Indian small or medium-sized enterprises controlling some 65% of the market. Nevertheless, multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, and Bristol-Myers have facilities and an active presence in India.

In June, India's Cadila Healthcare reached an agreement with the US-based pharma company, Gilead Sciences, to locally produce Remdesivir—a medication developed by Gilead Sciences with supposed antiviral properties and apparently effective against COVID-19.

“The API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) for the drug has been developed and manufactured at the company's manufacturing facilities in India's western state of Gujarat," according to Xinhua.

Gujarat is not the only base of the pharma industry in India. The industry has also taken root in Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, and Hyderabad, where, in addition to the availability of raw ingredients, a highly-skilled workforce is also close at hand thanks to the presence of large research universities, focusing on medical sciences and pharmacology.

The Indian pharmaceutical industry's success comes on the backdrop of biomedical research. Indian pharmacological researchers are continuously at work to come up with generic formulations which do the job of patented—and more expensive—drugs without patent violation, especially since 1994 when India became a signatory to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Admittedly, India's pharma sector has been, at times, criticized for quietly sidestepping international intellectual property laws by slightly altering foreign formulations or resorting to legal technicalities to get away with patent infringement. However, from a humanitarian point of view, Indian pharma is making drugs available to vast populations in the developing world at extremely low costs—sometimes a hundredth of the price asked by Western competitors.

Not satisfied with the reverse-engineering and reformulation of existing drugs, Indian researchers now want to lead the charge in the development of new molecular combinations from scratch. This desire is reflected in the growing investments of Indian pharma giants in their R&D departments. Sample pharma companies studied by the Indian Credit Rating Agency (ICRA) had aggregate R&D spendings of up to 9% before the pandemic.

What's more, the industry may manage to keep up its R&D activities even in these challenging times, as the sector is spared from some of the economic challenges that many businesses are currently dealing with. Not surprisingly, the pharma industry is among the few sectors which will not experience a notable contraction in the wake of the pandemic. The sector is expected to grow by 4-6 percent in 2020, according to the Indian Credit Rating Agency (ICRA).

The most exciting prospect for the Indian pharmaceutical sector in the next few months is playing a role in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The Serum Institute of India (SII) has teamed up with the British-Swedish company, AstraZeneca, to mass produce a proposed vaccine developed by the University of Oxford. It is said that SII has even started the clinical trial of the vaccine on humans.

Evidently, certain parallel efforts by other industry players in India are also in progress; Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted in his Independence Day speech on 15 Aug, “Not one, not two, as many as three coronavirus vaccines are being tested in India." If any of these efforts bears fruit in the coming weeks, it will undoubtedly improve the Indian pharma's global image and popularity.