Stopping the spread of superbugs

Published: July 23, 2019 1:51:57 AM

Third, this mission ties in beautifully with another heartening resolve that was announced by the FM—access to treated water to all Indian households.

A solution for India, therefore, will also be boon for the world.

By Sheetal Ranganathan 

Setting up a National Research Foundation (NRF) was a praiseworthy announcement by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her Budget speech. It confirms actionable resolve, not mere intent, of this government to boost India’s growth through scientific research and technology development.

Will the NRF enable a linear incremental growth or a quantum leap for India? That will be determined by the vision set for this organisation. The bolder the vision, the higher the returns. This moment, that of NRF’s inception, is also the moment of truth to set the aim high—for India to emerge as a world leader in innovation in select disciplines of science, and not just play catch-up with high-income countries.

In the hope the NRF is mandated to see that Indian science captures a pole position in cutting-edge innovation by 2030, its portfolio of missions should necessarily include a couple of mega-science projects that are envisioned in India, and led by India. The tag ‘mega’ classifies a project to be ultra-futuristic that forays into the unknown to solve a seemingly audacious problem—with the potential to bring an epochal change in the knowledge and the way of living for humanity on the whole, not just a nation or a race. Therefore, mega-science projects are run by international teams within the scientific fraternity. Their mission transcends all boundaries, geopolitical and cultural, bringing together best minds, skills and resources.

Most mega-science projects have been in space science or particle physics, except the legendary Human Genome Project. Recent examples include the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project that gave us the first image of a black hole, and the 2017 Physics Nobel prize-winning LIGO project that detected gravitational waves for the first time. Both are conceived, led and primarily financed by the US National Science Foundation. Project operations are run by a network of labs globally. Participation from other countries and private firms is in the form of monetary help and access to intellectual capital.

India has also been part of a few mega-science projects—as a contributing module participant, never as the torch-bearer. The NRF can change that. It is a golden chance to gear India up towards grabbing a seat on the table as a thought leader.
What should be India’s first mega-science project? One can make strong arguments for it to lie in computational sciences or economics or natural sciences, but what India and the world desperately need is a united front against the rise of superbugs due to antibiotic resistance—labelled the deadliest health threat by the WHO.

With many bacterial and fungal infections acquiring resistance to the strongest of antibiotics, the world is fast-retrogressing in time. Without effective antibiotics, commonplace surgeries such as caesarean childbirth will become life-threatening, as was a hundred years ago. Antibiotic-resistant infections are estimated to cause 10 million deaths annually by 2050, and push 24 million into extreme poverty by 2030. Its global economic impact would be as massive as that of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Despite these gory predictions, just a handful of research collaborations are taking a stab at it. The pharmaceutical industry is less interested simply because developing new-generation antibiotics is commercially not as viable as developing cures for cancers or neurological ailments. Nor has this problem-child found a parent in a solution-oriented non-profit foundation as malaria and tuberculosis have. That is why the world’s next mega-science project should be in biomedical science, and here is why India should lead the quest for next-generation antibiotics.

First, India is in the eye of the storm. It needs defence against this impending health crisis urgently, and in much larger magnitude than any other country. With Indians forming the largest consumer segment of antibiotics in the world, and Indian livestock being the fourth-biggest, genesis of newer species of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is highly likely in India. Further, India is one of the world’s biggest producers of antibiotics. Industrial waste that is released into the environment during large-scale manufacturing of antibiotics has put the entire ecosystem at risk. Studies have shown that Indians are exposed to a high concentration of drug-resistant bacteria via animal and sea food, vegetables, dairy products, and untreated water from rivers and lakes that are superbug hotspots. A solution for India, therefore, will also be boon for the world.

Second, India has a real chance of finding a solution. It has inherent strengths that will act as deterministic success factors for this mission: rich ecological diversity, access to a huge, pre-existing knowledge source of natural-products-based cures in traditional medicine systems, and the intellectual prowess of Indian biologists and biochemists.

Third, this mission ties in beautifully with another heartening resolve that was announced by the FM—access to treated water to all Indian households. Projects aiming at ensuring water safety and sanitation hygiene for Indian citizens will go in vain unless other avenues of infection control and prevention are also plugged.

The world may slip into dark ages—minor infections may become untreatable again. India has the wherewithal to reverse an approaching apocalypse with its scientific and intellectual leadership. It’s time for India to stand-up to the challenge, write its growth story, and gift the world a saviour next-gen antibiotic.

Vice-president of life sciences operations of a global research & consulting firm. Views are personal.

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