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Published on: March 22, 2021, 5:57 a.m.
BioAsia’s clarion call: ‘Together, we are’
  • Rao: Covid-19 has led to a confluence of multi-stakeholders across industries, all coming together to reduce the cost of drug development

By Daksesh Parikh. Executive Editor, Business India

One of the issues plaguing the minds of most people globally was how did the medical fraternity succeed in bringing a vaccine to combat Covid-19, in such a short period. Normally, it takes at least four years before a vaccine can complete its trial runs and subsequently begin mass production. “Many people wonder how we’ve done in less than a year what usually takes at least 4-5 years,” explained Peter Marks, director, Centre for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), FDA. “It is through getting rid of the dead space. One waits till late in the process to scale up manufacturing. But for Covid-19, we did seamless phases of trials without any dead space. Manufacturers have scaled up their processes and it is a reasonable risk to take”. Marks was delivering the virtual keynote address at the 18th edition of  BioAsia, 2021.

An annual conclave hosted by Telengana state,  BioAsia this time was a virtual event held on 12 and 13 February, which saw 31,450 participants across 72 countries. The participants included officials in biotech and bio-pharma companies, medical devices, research institutions, investors, policy makers and regulators. There were 60 speakers in this year’s conference, which provided a global platform for the exchange of ideas, newer innovations and new discoveries in the bio-technology field. BioAsia allows companies to exhibit launches and showcase their unique strengths, products and services. The focus this year was on Covid-19 and beyond. Even as the broader aim of BioAsia remains on driving a global transformation from the treatment of illness to wellness, the overarching theme for this year’s event was ‘Moving the needle’.

Marks spoke about the Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) for the vaccine and how the manufacturers’ request for vaccine production and commercialisation was done. He talked about the how the stars in the U, Pfizer and Moderna rose to the occasion in producing vaccines. Drawing on the lessons learned from his experience in academics and medics, he said, “I think the most important lesson I’ve learnt is, there is no ‘One Best’. We all bring something to the table. We work best when we collaborate. The pandemic taught us that we are strong when we all work together.” Collaboration was a theme touched by several speakers, like Satya Nadella of Microsoft.

There were a galaxy of speakers who spoke on the diverse topics ranging from the relevance in Global Health, Pharma, and MedTech, besides dwelling on the challenges created by Covid-19 and learning opportunities for the future. Some of the other speakers included Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general, programmes, World Health Organisation; V.K. Paul and Amitabh Kant, NITI Aayog; Trevor Mundel, president, Global Health; and Gates Foundation. Sangita Reddy, joint MD, Apollo Hospitals, and Debjani Ghosh, president, NASSCOM, and Ashutosh Raghuvanshi, MD & CEO, Fortis Healthcare, were the other speakers.

Healthcare to Refresh

The two-day event also saw several panels focussing on the pandemic and its impact across the globe, discussing India’s role and potential in immunising the world. One particular event, which saw good response, was ‘Healthcare to Refresh’. The discussion between K.T. Rama Rao, minister for industry & commerce, Telengana, and Satya Nadella focussed on the role and opportunities created by the interplay of technology in healthcare/ life sciences, digital transformation and role of start-ups, amongst others. “Covid-19 has changed the way business is being done,” said Rama Rao, starting the discussion. “It has also led to a confluence of multi-stakeholders across industries, all coming together to reduce the cost of drug development.

How could such multi-stakeholders’ engagement accelerate the transformation of the pandemic? Elaborating on how technology and AI has helped, Nadella drew on his own company’s example and pointed out that, early in the pandemic, “We worked with a company called Adaptive Biotech, which was figuring out how the immune system actually responds to the virus – because that knowledge was critical to the discovery and vaccines. So, the idea that can use clinical data for drug discovery and the speed at which the feedback loop works is being completely transformed.” Going forward, after the pandemic, “we as a society should have a goal of better handling the next event,” Nadella said. “We better be equipped with better facility and resilience.”

Working from home has given the world more flexibility, pointed out Nadella, explaining that it has helped in smoother collaboration across frontline and knowledge work. More people are being brought in the organisations to strengthen human capital. Learning must be encapsulated in the technology tools. “I think collaboration, learning and well-being are fundamental – these are the things that are going to transform the way we work, while giving people a lot more flexibility.”

Another popular event at the BioAsia event has been the CEO Conclave. The focus on this year’s event was on the pursuit of innovation – from the pharmacy of the world to the global life sciences’ innovation hub.  The panel comprised Swati Piramal of Piramal group, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of BIocon and Nilesh Gupta of Lupin, along with K.T. Rama Rao, Amitabh Kant and Shriram Srinivasan, leader, India Life Sciences, EY. The panel discussed how India, which is the pharmacy of the world, having established its leadership in the generics market, can now replicate its success in the complex generics and biosimilars markets.

While the success of Biocon is well-known, not much is known about established companies foraying into these segments. Aurobindo Pharma has a well-established Biologics Division, which is involved in cell line development, process and analytical development. The company aims to deliver high quality biosimilars across oncology, respiratory, ophthalmology and auto-immune disease segments. The company’s cGMP manufacturing comprises 140,000 sq ft, with segregated facility sections for microbial and mammalian cell culture, bulk drug substance manufacturing, viral filtration suites, filling in pre-filled syringes and vials, visual inspection and packaging sections, etc.

It already has a portfolio of 13 biosimilars, which include five molecules acquired from TL Biopharmaceuticals AG. The pipeline caters to oncology, rheumatology and ophthalmology. In the first wave of development, the company is working on five products. The combined market size of these products is in excess of $20 billion.

Solutions for rare diseases

Dr Lal Pathlabs is another such company. Better known for launching new tests for enabling clinicians to take better decisions, it has launched Genevolve in 2020, a new Genomics division, which has a focussed foray in genetic testing. This division offers a wide range of key tests relating to Oncogenomics, Neurogenomics, Rare disease & Pre-Natal/Post-Natal genetic testing, using cutting edge technologies, such as Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), MLPA, ddPCR, FISH & Sanger Sequencing, etc. All these tests are performed at National Reference Laboratory located at Rohini, New Delhi.

Genome profiling is another sector, which has been drawing a lot of interest, especially as it holds the potential for longevity. Genome tracing, in association with quantum computing, is already being selectively done. 

There were quite a few other interesting sessions, which included, reimagining R&D post Covid, collaboration, data and repurposing and medical technologies, as also the next big opportunity for India – virtually connected healthcare. The panelists for the latter included Sangita Reddy, Debjani Ghosh and Ashutosh Raghuvanshi. There was also a session, which addressed the start-ups community and creation of unicorns.

George Bickerstaff, co-founder & managing director, M.M. Dillon & Co, and Jo Bury, CEO, VIB, focussed on the growing importance of innovating and delved deeper into the inter-section of healthcare, technology and finance. They also stressed upon the role of start-ups in healthcare sector, the means of financing R&D and the power of collaboration.

On the whole, the first virtual session of BioAsia session was well-received, said Shakthi Nagappan, CEO, BioAsia & Director, Telangana Life Sciences. “Despite the pandemic, we strived to ensure that the 17 years’ long legacy of BioAsia continues,” he claimed. “We were able to get experts to deliberate on the topics impacting every individual.”

GENOME AWARD

The forum conferred the prestigious Genome Valley Excellence Award for 2021 on Bharat Biotech International Limited for its break-throughs, pioneering research, development and commercialisation of vaccines, including Covaxin™ (for Covid-19), Rabies, Rotavirus,  Japanese Encephalitis, Polio and Typhoid Conjugate, among others, which have helped save billions of lives globally.

The Federation of Asian Biotech Associations (FABA), a partner organisation of BioAsia, announced that the FABA Special Award was bestowed on Balram Bhargava, Secretary to the government of India’s department of health research, ministry of health & family welfare & director general, Indian Council for Medical Research since 2018. The award was given for his exemplary contributions to medicine and healthcare.

Bhargava, besides spearheading the fight against Covid-19 in India, has also commenced several extraordinary marquee projects, such as India-Stanford Bio design programme, c-GMP Centre for Excellence for Stem Cell Studies, Society for Less Investigative Medicine (SLIM) and many more. He has pioneered the development of indigenous low-cost coronary stents that have benefited several thousand patients.

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