Able Talk

“We have to marshall our own resources and ingenuity to tackle COVID-19”

As India and most of the world faces the unexpected pandemic caused by the new Corona virus, COVID-19 that emerged just over three months ago in Wuhan, China and spread widely in a short time, the nation is looking up to the biotechnology industry to find quick solutions to rapidly test the presence of virus, reliable cure and vaccines to prevent occurrence of this deadly scourge as fast as possible. In an exclusive interview with en-ABLE, our newsletter, President of ABLE ( Association of Biotechnology LedEnterprises), Mr Shrikumar Suryanarayan outlines what can we expect from this highly innovative industrial sector. Excerpts:

Expecting other countries to help us at this point of time is not only unreasonable , but impractical as well. This is typically a case of every country for themselves. At a time like this, India has to rely on its own resources and the ingenuity of its people to help ourselves. 

Background

BIOTALK WITH ABLE PRESIDENT: 

What is the overview from the biotech industry as the nation faces a massive threat from Covid-19?

The spread of COVID-19  has caught almost all nations and regions  unprepared  bar a few  ( like Hong Kong and South Korea ) who learned valuable lessons from the SARS epidemic several years ago ( SARS is also a Corona virus) .   It has taken us a while to establish epidemiology and understand the course of the disease. Much of our knowledge stems from  China ,  and now from Italy and  increasingly from the United states and it is proving to be somewhat different in  each context. For example  the China experience seemed to establish that it is mostly the elderly that are at risk . But recent evidence ( (see interview from Dr. Anthony Fauci of NIAID)  from Europe and the US   seems to indicate that the younger generation is also significantly at risk.  India is primarily a young country so   what will that mean for us?  Only time will tell.

As the biotech industry works towards the  development of a cure, what is your suggestion to our citizens?

In the interim , and unlike any other time in our history the entire world is battling this contagion simultaneously. Expecting other countries to help us at this point of time is not only unreasonable , but impractical as well. This is typically a case of every country for themselves. At a time like this,   India has to rely on its own resources and the ingenuity of its people to help ourselves. 

How do you see this playing out in the next few weeks?

 In the fight against a new and unknown disease, where there is little knowledge about  the progression, the people at risk, and no set treatment protocols, drugs or vaccines the only proven solution today is to contain the spread of the disease . Hence, quarantine, self-isolation and lockdown are going to be our mantra from now on.  And we must be prepared for the long haul. There may be a month of lockdown then some let up and another lock down sometime in the future until we reach a state where our hospitals can cope with the influx of patients and to be able to take care of them long enough for their own body immune systems to kick in and start overcoming the infection.

 

What are our priorities besides staying in isolation minimizing the spread of infection?

Short term priorities – these can be implemented right away and can have an effect within a few months.

  1. Testing facilities and kits:We need to increase our  indigenous  diagnostic testing capacity  for COVID-19  -  Knowing the spread and extent of the disease can help us plan better. More labs doing the testing, more diagnostic kits, more reagents to build these diagnostic kits. – all certified to acceptable standards. 
  2. Emergency Medical equipment - We  need to boost the indigenous capacity for the manufacture  specialized  emergency hospital equipment that will be required to cope with the rush of patients  - COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.   It’s like a Pneumonia . At the acute stages  people have difficulty in breathing. We need to manufacture more ventilators so that acutely ill people can be help through these stages long enough for them to recover.  We need to boost theproduction of personal protective equipment.
  3. Repurpose existing drugs - Secure the supply of potential drugs that can be repurposed to fight COVID -19. For example Hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin, certain anti-retroviral  drugs  reported to be efficacious. There may be several other commonly drugs as well that might work as well  ( https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.022.002386v1) .   We might need to look at data from people who  have recovered and analyze that for clues in terms of what worked and what did not.
  4. Initiate Clinical trials - While data surrounding these drugs is anecdotal, we need to urgently  initiate clinical trials  to prove it out one way or the other. We also need to initiate clinical trials to see if plasma from recovered patients can be used to treat acutely ill patients.

Medium to long term priorities

  1. Develop  and fast track new therapeutics – Small molecules and antibodies .  By the time they run through clinical trials however, it could be a year at least.
  2. Develop vaccines – Though these are at least a year away.

Like we mentioned before, these are times where we have to mostly rely on ourselves to help ourselves.  As time goes by we to highlight some of India’s indigenous efforts in these areas.