"Now we realise that it cannot be contained so easily," she said on the World Health Organisation's assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.
India should step up research on communicable diseases and get into vaccine production in a big way, says biotechnology industry veteran Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw in the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak globally. The Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon Ltd also urged the government to rope in the private sector to boost diagnostic capacity to deal with the COVID-19 cases.
“Now we realise that it cannot be contained so easily,” she said on the World Health Organisation’s assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic. According to her, the response of the US and Europe has been very slow in containing it. “Now that they are responding, they realise that it has spread quite a lot”, Mazumdar-Shaw told PTI in an interview. What’s even more scary is that there are not enough diagnostic kits available (in major coronavirus-affected countries) for quick diagnosis, she said.
“You can’t even do mass screening. Even in a country like the US, even though people are exhibiting all these symptoms, they are basically taking chest x-rays and quarantining them. They don’t have enough kits to really deal with every case. So, it’s quite worrying, because you can see how it’s surging,” Mazumdar-Shaw said.
Countries like China and parts of Asia such as Singapore have contained it, she noted. In India, the coronavirus positive cases are low at the moment, but, one has to wait and see how far it can be contained, she said, adding companies in India are taking immediate rapid response steps.
Biocon for example has started checking the temperatures of all people entering its premises — employees and visitors — from Monday. Mazumdar-Shaw stressed the need for the Indian government to focus on diagnostics now. “Because just restricting it to a few government labs is going to be very difficult for the government to deal with huge volumes that could pile up. Many of these could be negative but we have to check. Private sector also should be roped in to offer some of these rapid tests,” she said.
Biocon is willing to set up a testing facility for coronoavirus, she said, adding, there is a need to very rapidly increase the number of diagnostic centres in India. “Otherwise, we will not have capacity at some stage to screen people who are displaying these symptoms,” she said. Mazumdar-Shaw said data is needed to know the age profile of those exhibiting serious symptoms. “All this data is very important; if you don’t have diagnostic kits and if you are second guessing, then you are not going to get credible data on which to act,” she added.
On the impact of coronavirus on the Indian biotechnology industry, she said there was an opportunity for the sector to start seriously looking at these kinds of viral diseases. “Indian public health system does not even mandate a flu-shot every year. I always take an annual flu-shot when I go abroad or even here. So, these kinds of things are very important that we get into vaccine production in a big way, and getting understanding of viral epidemics is important, we need to a lot of studies on viruses”, Mazumdar-Shaw said.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, she had asked the government to allocate a big fund to create a viral and microbial repository, so that more research can be done and India can be in a state of preparedness in terms of vaccines and antibiotics. “All this research is going to be very important for the world. Now, the world has realised it has neglected antibiotics”, she said.
Communicable diseases were dubbed “third world” or “developing world” diseases in some quarters. “That’s not true anymore; it (communicable diseases) affects the whole world because of travel and migration. This is an opportunity to really strengthen the India biotech sector and make sure that you start researching on all these communicable diseases as well”, Mazumdar-Shaw said.