By Simeon Bennett/Bloomberg
Singapore: India’s demand for vaccines has spurred growth in its biotechnology industry, which is now seen by overseas drugmakers as a lower-cost hub for research and manufacturing, the journal Nature Biotechnology reported on 10 April.
The drive to produce affordable vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus and rabies has created the basis from which Indian biotech companies are moving further into research, according to the study.
Drugmakers including Switzerland’s Novartis AG and London- based GlaxoSmithKline Plc are partnering with Indian companies to provide basic research and manufacturing. Investment in the industry may enable Indian companies to copy blockbuster biotech treatments, similar to the way pharmaceutical companies created a billion-dollar business making generic chemical-based drugs.
“India will be a large player in the global biotechnology economy,” said Sarah E Frew, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and one of the report’s authors, in an e-mail.
Biotech drugs are among the most expensive prescriptions dispensed in the US, accounting for $40.3 billion (Rs1,72,806 crore) or 15%, of Americans’ drug purchases last year, according to IMS Health Inc., a research company in Fairfield, Connecticut. These products include anemia treatments such as Epogen and Johnson & Johnson’s Procrit, as well as insulin and human growth hormone.
“The global market for such generic biopharmaceuticals is expected to increase significantly in the next few years as several blockbuster drugs lose patent protection,” the authors wrote. “Indian companies appear well positioned to leverage their cost-effective manufacturing capabilities to corner some of this market share and compete on a global scale.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. said last month it is planning to expand its research operations in India in partnership with Biocon Ltd, the country’s biggest biotechnology company.
New York-based Bristol-Myers, maker of the blood-thinning pill Plavix, plans to set up a research facility in the southern Indian city of Bangalore that may host as many as 400 scientists.
“This example illustrates that India is certainly becoming a hub for biotechnology research,” Frew said.
The study’s authors, who also include researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, based their findings on a survey of 21 Indian biotech companies.
Some local biotech companies are also tapping the global market. Hyderabad-based Shantha Biotechnics Pvt. is the first in India to manufacture a human hepatitis B vaccine using recombinant DNA technology.
“The entry of Shantha’s product and that of other domestic manufacturers quickly followed led to a reduction in cost from about $15 for the imported product to 50 cents for the domestic product,” Frew said. The plunge in price was because Shantha used a different strain of yeast that resulted in lower purification costs, she said.
“As a result, this much more affordable vaccine is now part of India’s expanded program of immunization,” Frew said. Shantha now provides about 40% of hepatitis B vaccine used by the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“India’s biotechnology sector is like a baby elephant, but baby elephants have to grow up,” she said.