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The covid pandemic has demonstrated how vulnerabilities in the healthcare system can have serious implications on public health, economic progress, government trust and social cohesion. As we felt that the lethality of the pandemic was fading, the second wave ravaged the country last year. In the midst of it all, the healthcare industry had to rise to the occasion with constant innovation, come up with new ways to address needs of the hour and provide patient care. Dependency on healthcare services increased multifold and consumers were quick to adopt digitized services, demonstrating a significant behavioural shift. Pharma research and development (R&D) roared to life in unprecedented ways by developing new drugs, vaccines and tests for covid.

According to our health ministry, the total number of covid vaccine doses administered in India has surpassed 1.3 billion. However, a new covid variant is upon us now, and about half of India’s population is yet to be fully immunized. With a surge in covid cases due to the new strain Omicron spreading rapidly and the threat of a third wave, there is renewed interest in booster shots for those already vaccinated. Booster doses are especially needed to safeguard the healthcare and frontline workers who were vaccinated way earlier than the rest. Private hospitals are inundated with requests for booster doses, and demand is increasing in India as a result of reports of these being administered abroad. The vaccine advisory board of the World Health Organization recommends that people with immunodeficiency or those who have been vaccinated with an inactivated vaccine receive a booster. Industry leaders are nudging the government to administer booster shots in view of a third wave, as providing maximum vaccine coverage is one of best ways of future-proofing.

The covid pandemic has had a large impact on the Indian healthcare sector, leaving it in urgent need of solid financial backing. To address this, the government announced a 137% increase in healthcare expenditure in the budget for 2021-22. Going ahead, health and safety must be the top-most priority. The prescription for an innovative and healthy India will include multi-stakeholder collaboration between the government, private sector, universities, technology and healthcare startups, experts and other stakeholders, to create a concrete action plan and take steps towards the development of a patient-centred and technology-enabled healthcare system. The roles of healthcare workers will need to evolve through dramatic technological changes that could empower health workers with the requisite skills for better judgement and decision making.

The transformation of manufacturing, backed by advanced technology, supply chain management and efficient operations, will help build a healthy supply and logistics ecosystem in India.

It is important to build a transparent, connected and agile network to track drug delivery from start to finish. The system should be able to monitor and warn of potential bottlenecks and detect over-stocking of drugs nearing the end of their shelf life. We must determine the desired inventory level for each drug at each location as an input for schedules and forecasts, and simulate scenarios to improve forecast accuracy.

The price of a drug is an important factor to consider for all countries, especially within the context of medicines needing to be commonly affordable. We also need to incentivize innovators to price drugs for the recovery of significant discovery costs and risks involved in investing money to meet unmet needs and address new diseases.

The effects of covid and its mutations highlight the necessity of a global legally-binding solution to ensure that pathogens are available to scientists for the development of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tools. We must learn from our responses to this catastrophe in order to remove barriers for future generations faced with public health crises. Now, more than ever, is the time to join together to share pathogens in a timely and predictable manner for monitoring, epidemiology and research.

India has the potential to become a global hub for R&D, clinical research, manufacturing and knowledge-based services. Investments in innovation will boost India’s position as a world leader in pharmaceuticals and present us an opportunity to become self-reliant in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite a few challenges, digital technology would be a game-changer in healthcare. Moreover, digitization and automation can create new opportunities for integrating and safeguarding patients’ health and overall well-being.

Swati Piramal is vice chairperson, Piramal Group.

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