Prof. K. VijayRaghavan, FRS, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, is a distinguished professor and former director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences. In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in April 2014, he was elected as a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This article is based on his views expressed during the 80th Synergia Virtual Forum on 'Accelerating Development of Novel and Affordable Therapies'.
Today, climate change, the environment, and ecology are aspects that are being overlooked, emphasised Prof. K. VijayRaghavan. They have been somewhat neglected at the altar of cheap goods. By not paying attention to these areas, humans have got to a point where cheap consumer goods are the priority, instead of paying a higher price for products that are mindful of the aforementioned aspects.
We have a situation where increasing human-animal proximity has also increased the likelihood of zoonotic diseases spilling over. The danger of this was something scientists talked about for many years, such as with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, whose aim is to support and coordinate activities to improve the collective response to epidemics and strengthen capacity in countries at risk. It works towards creating and researching vaccines solely for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) like COVID-19. Therefore, our ecology needs special attention, not just from the spillover of zoonotic diseases, but in terms of conserving biodiversity and having a healthy planet.
For the environment, the role of cities as a consequence of a growing economy has meant an extraordinary congregation of people in close proximity. Teeming cities, sharpened the population divide in terms of wealth and density, resulting in dehumanising structures. This was inevitable because we did not stick to sustainable development.
The environmental impact, through the creation of huge cities and the methods used in building them, needs to change so as to bring back a decent quality of life and a sustainable mechanism of growing our economies. City management and integrated planning play a critical role in ensuring that urban areas function sustainably. Since resources are finite and do not address environmental and healthcare issues, this has severe consequences: health hazards, loss of biodiversity, and a lower quality of life.
Climate change is a consequence of economic growth over the decades all over the world. Since humans started the domestication of animals, there has been a steady increase in the impact on the environment as a consequence of growth. An example of this is the concept of fertilisers that allow us to grow more food, but are bad for the soil, and sometimes ourselves.There is also the impact of industries — iron ore mining, energy generation, etc. These may have provided for a high quality of life in some societies but at the cost of those on the outside.
It is no longer possible to grow at the expense of others. . “There is no free lunch; we have got a free lunch at the expense of other societies,”says Prof. K. VijayRaghavan. Therefore there is the need to chart the way forward through this pandemic to a new way of growing through sustainable development that does not damage the environment and ecology. It has been shown to be possible in closed systems, but the challenge is in the open system. Science and technology have allowed for decentralised sustainable growth, with the inventions of things like the transistors and the internet, which allow for local manufacturing and design-centric products.
POSITIVES OF THE PANDEMIC
A positive aspect of the pandemic, says Prof. K. VijayRaghavan, is that there has been the extraordinary event of people from all walks of life coming together to solve immediate problems in extraordinary ways. People have made ventilators, oxygen support systems, repurposed drugs, and created contact-tracing technologies. This coming together has been possible through investment in scientific and industrial research in places like Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, Gujarat, etc.
There has been a drug hackathon established in India, where thousands of students are being trained in computation methods and computational drug discovery. The DDH2020 vision and mission, as described by the GoI website on the same, is to establish an ‘Open innovation Model’ for in silico drug discovery against COVID-19, and will cover the various processes in drug discovery, including, but not limited to, in silico screening of molecules, lead optimisation and identification of drug-able, non-toxic targets. The targets or lead molecules identified through the process of this hackathon would be further taken forward for synthesis, followed by subsequent steps in the routine drug discovery programme.
In the realm of vaccine development, the Indian vaccine industry is known the world over — nearly two out of three children get vaccines that are manufactured in India. While the big names like Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech, and Zydus-Cadilla have gone into vaccine design and manufacturing, startups and academic labs have also come to the fore in their attempts to find a vaccine. India currently has 30 trials, with 20 that are doing well. This is not going to be a first-past-the-post-system Prof. VijayRaghavan opines. No matter where the vaccines are made, the Indian pharmaceutical industry will play a huge role in the distribution and filling of the vaccines.
The health system has also come together like never before — the ICMR, Health Ministry, and agencies like the Department of Biotechnology. They have operated tirelessly in these times, and have been taking in all the information and feedback to come up with solutions even when under great stress.
Prof. K. VijayRaghavan concluded by saying that though these are tough times for healthcare workers and health systems, the solutions we need for the future should not only deal with what is in front of us at present, but must come from paying attention to the environment, ecology, and climate change as well.