Deputy Director at Confederation of Indian Industry
As every great crisis presents an opportunity for countries to deepen their ties and reaffirm their commitment for each other, time has come yet again to expand the traditional Indo-Russian strategic partnership which has been built on five major components: politics, defence, civil nuclear energy, anti-terrorism co-operation and space, towards new areas and sectors. Health and pharma can be very important additions to the existing bilateral relationships matrix between the two countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new opportunities for India and Russia to expand the horizons of their bilateral ties and deepen their cooperation in the area of health and pharmacy. It has encouraged both the countries to cooperate and explore new frontier of partnership in the area of health and pharma. Development, production and marketing of anti-covid drugs, medical devices and health-tech are three main areas which could form the foundation of cooperation in the healthcare sector between India and Russia. As President Putin is expected to visit India in October for high level summit with Prime Minister Modi, both leaders should take the opportunity to create leadership position in the area of health and for the benefit of world.
It is worth highlighting the importance of development and mass production of anti-COVID-19 drugs. Traditionally, Indian Pharma has played a big role in supplying the medicines to Russia over the years, however current pandemic crisis has presented a unique opportunity to both countries to collaborate and engage in the development, mass production and marketing of anti-Covid drugs. With COVID-19 grappling the world, economies across the globe are desperate to find a cure that will bring the virus under control. Different countries have entered the race efforts to find a preventive to check the spread of the deadly virus that has already infected more than 14 million globally.
All medical organizations are actively involved in R&D activities with the aim of developing a vaccine that will help pave a way for a Corona-free universe to develop a solution to combat the deadly virus. As many as 26 out of these 160 vaccines have entered human testing stage with the hope of being commercially available by early 2021.
Joint development, production and marketing of COVID-19 VACCINE is one such area where India and Russia can assume a leadership role and fulfill bulk vaccine requirements of the world at very reasonable rates. Russia has domestically developed a few drugs as well as registered a number of foreign drugs for treatment of COVID- 19. Out of these drugs, Russian Ministry of Health has offered to supply India with three indigenously manufactured anti- COVID drugs which are already showing positive results in Russia. These are Favipiravir or Avifavir; Olokizumab or Artlegia and Levilimab or Ilsira.
Russian Direct Investment Fund, the institution which has funded the development of anti-covid drugs in Russia, reiterated that they are cooperating with Indian partners to share the most advanced practices to combat coronavirus and are open to producing the vaccine by Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in India. They are currently discussing the possibility of a collaboration with several Indian partners.
Indian government has not responded to these offers of cooperation in a very emphatic way due to the fact that the Indian Pharma industry is closely aligned with US and western countries, hence such offers might’ve been premature for them to consider at this stage. Russian offers may not gain enough traction specially in context when India has set up its own mandate to develop Anti-covid drugs. Currently, Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL), and National Institute of Virology, Pune is developing India’s indigenous vaccine for COVID 19 – COVAXIN. Intending to introduce the vaccine on 15th August 2020 (Independence Day), the human trials have commenced in 12 institutions across the nation that will perform tests on more than 1,100 people as a part of phase 1 and 2 clinical trials.
However, cooperation with Russia on anti covid drugs could be beneficial for India because it would provide them an edge and new market specially when the whole world is still suffering from COVID 19 and is desperate to find a cure that will help curb the spread of this deadly virus. As India is often called the pharmacy of the world, cooperation with Russia on anti covid-drug provides them the golden opportunity to strengthen their position in the pharma market and it would be beneficial for the humanity at large because it would be provided at very reasonable rates due to the low cost of development and production of drugs in India.
Second theme of health sector collaboration between India and Russia is medical supplies and medical devices. There’s a need on the part of both the countries to develop deeper cooperation in this area. With the aim of becoming Atma Nirbhar, India has significantly traversed the journey to become a self-reliant nation for medical supplies and has noticeably reduced its dependency on other countries for its medical needs. Being 3rd largest producer of medicines in the world and catering to 62% of global demand for vaccines, the country is now adopting backward integration by producing APIs and Key starting materials of drugs with support of the government in the form of production-linked incentive schemes. Hence, with such a great capacity, India can provide domestically manufactured medical supplies to Russia at very competitive prices. It is noteworthy that during the early days of COVID-19 crisis, India actively provided medical commodities and pharmaceuticals to Russia which was well appreciated by the President Mr. Vladimir Putin. As India has remarkably consolidated its position in the area of medical diplomacy, it should leverage it further to make inroads to the market of Russia and many other countries.
Indian medical device industry is one of the biggest in the world and accessing Russian market could open a new gateway to Eastern Europe and CIS regions for the industry. In fact, recently Russia has implemented major reforms in the area of medical device industry which have simplified its complex nature. This has considerably streamlined the processes related to registration of new medical device with the Russian market, easy transfer of ownership , and facilitation of import of medical devices to its territory. All the latest reforms introduced by Russian government in the wake of pandemic could work as major boon for Indian medical supplies and medical devices industry to enter the Russian Market.
Another promising area of cooperation in the heath sector could be adoption of health technologies as COVID-19 has unleashed a health care revolution across the world. Platforms like Invest India in India and Startup Skolkovo Foundation in Russia which promote innovation and help startups scale-up should ride this wave of health-tech revolution as major stakeholders. India should partner with Russian companies like Sistema, which are willing to sell products to Indian partners for mass production and operations in India. A joint effort in the digital revolution in health sector is crucial for successful collaboration between the two countries. Digitally assisted deliveries digital applications in health can be a great marriage of the Indo- Russian talents.
COVID-19 presents a new and unexplored opportunity with exponential potential to two-time successfully tested strategic and privileged partners; India and Russia, to take their engagements to a new level and expand their existing bilateral ties to include Health as one of the central pillars of engagement.