Last year, on 30 January, the first cases of coronavirus were detected in India. It took another two and a half months for the first deaths to be reported. But by September, with close to 100,000 infections and 1000 deaths each day, India was soon to be one of the worst affected countries in the world.
The latest figures, however, show a remarkable, almost miraculous turnaround, with a dramatic plummeting of India’s COVID-19 pandemic graphs. True, with over 10.8 million cases, India remains the second most infected nation in the world, after United States, whose tally has crossed 27 million.
Even when it comes to deaths due to the virus, India’s numbers, at close to 155,000, are significantly high. But deaths per million, at just 112, remain remarkably low. What is even more astonishing is that out the total number of infected persons, over 97% have beat the disease.
This is one of the highest rates of recoveries in the world. Even more encouraging is the fact that active cases just over 146,000 and the daily infection rate around 11,000, are both manageable. Even the daily death rate is now below 100.
Even more laudable is India’s vaccination drive, which reached a notable landmark of 56,36,868 on 6 February. Of these, 52,66,175 are frontline health workers, over 50% of the total registered cohort. In other words, India has vaccinated over 5.5 million people in merely 21 days, which purports to be a world record.
On Saturday, Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Health Minister, said that other than the two already approved vaccines, Covishield (Oxford-AstraZeneca-Serum Institute) and Covaxine (Bharat Biotech), 7 more are in the pipeline. By July 2021, some 300 million Indians, roughly 1/6th of the population, are expected to be vaccinated.
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What is more, being the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and leader in cost-effective, generic medicine, India has already distributed indigenously produced vaccines to 9 countries. According to India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, K. Nagaraj Naidu, more than 6 million vaccine doses have been airlifted abroad.
“Contractual supplies to various countries are also being undertaken in a phased manner. We will also gradually supply to the COVAX facility of the WHO,” he added.
The question, then, is whether India can assume a premier role as the world’s vaccine supplier, given the current confusion and leadership vacuum.
India is already a global hub for IT and software outsourcing and support. Can it also become the world’s pharmacy, especially in these troubled times when over 100 million have been infected with the coronavirus?
According to a 31 July 2020 report, “India: Pharmacy to the World,” put out by the Strategic Investment Research Unit (SIRU) and wrote by Srividhya, Sanya Datt, and Ankita Sharma, the prospects are bright. India’s Pharma sector is worth $41 billion, with exports accounting for $19.13 billion (2018-19).
The sector has been growing at 10-12% per year. India is already the world’s largest generic medicine provider, supplying 65% of the World Health Organizations demand for Diphtheria Pertussis Tetanus (DPT) and 90% of BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin) and measles vaccines. In fact, India supplies some 60,000 generic brands across 60 therapeutic categories to the world.
India’s achievements in the Pharma sector are outstanding. While it is the largest supplier of low cost generics, vaccines and affordable HIV drugs, home to the 2nd highest FDA approved plants, and 3rd largest in terms of bulk, it lags behind in 14th position in terms of value.
No wonder, Rajaram Narayanan, Managing Director, Sanofi says, “The pharma industry is a sunrise industry in India with a competitive advantage. India can leverage its strength in manufacturing, research and innovation for benefits of patients.”
The report, “India: Pharmacy to the World,” concludes by predicting that “Healthcare is likely to remain at the forefront of public focus even in the aftermath of COVID-19 around the world. This is an opportune time for India to emerge as the global ‘medical superpower’ by providing essential drugs, medical expertise, treatment infrastructure and capacity building to other nations with limited prospects.”
The right government policies and augmented investment in the sector will enable the industry to rise to the challenge of heightened global demand for affordable COVID-19 vaccines.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s recent budget reflects this push with its 200% fillip to the sector from Rs. 42 crores to Rs. 124 crores. This shows the government’s determination to reduce India’s dependence on Chinese imports in the Pharma sector.
With India’s boost to medical tourism, in addition to the manufacture and export of medicines, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of ensuring not just a healthy India but India as a global caregiver may well come true.
By sharing, despite being a poor country, rather than hoarding, its vaccines such as some rich countries have, India has already shown the way to the world.