How Merck is working to make India an infectious disease-ready nation

Vibhu Jain, Head of Regional Marketing – Research Solutions, Asia Pacific, Merck, reveals how Merck is working to make India an infectious disease-ready nation, and how cross-sector collaboration and use of advanced technologies can be a key to successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is an unrivaled scientific and global health challenge. As of December 15, 2020, there have been 71,351,695 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1,612,372 deaths, as reported to WHO.

As the pandemic continues to cause global, social and economic disruption, governments, pharmaceutical companies, biomedical companies, research institutes and universities are focusing on finding solutions to challenges with diagnostic, vaccines, and therapeutic treatments to tackle this virus.

For over 125 years, the company has been bringing forward medicines and vaccines for many of the world’s most challenging diseases by increasing access to healthcare through far-reaching policies, programmes, and partnerships.

Today as the biopharmaceutical player continues to be at the forefront of research to prevent and treat diseases that threaten people and animals – including cancer, infectious diseases such as HIV and Ebola, and emerging animal diseases, it shares how lessons learnt from this pandemic can help us better prepare ourselves against other infectious diseases and how discovery processes can be shortened through stronger collaboration and knowledge exchange. 

To this effect they have partnered with fellow biopharmaceutical companies to sign a historic pledge to continue to make the safety and well being of vaccinated individuals the top priority in development of the first COVID-19 vaccines.

The role technology can play

“We’ve been committed to developing an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic since it was first recognised,” said Vibhu Jain, Head of Regional Marketing – Research Solutions, Asia Pacific, Merck, as he spoke about Merck’s efforts across four pillars, namely pandemic preparedness, diagnostic tools, therapeutics, and vaccines.

Pandemic preparedness

The life science business of Merck collaborated with the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, Community Biotechnology Initiative at MIT Media Lab, to convene more than 180 experts and global leaders for a three-week exercise to address the challenge of developing pandemic resilience. The experts submitted over 200 contributions, were clustered into emergent, actionable themes.

CRISPR-based diagnostic tests

Merck collaborated with Mammoth Biosciences to scale CRISPR-based SARS CoV-2 test. The test leverages Mammoth’s DETECTR BOOST platform and provides a sample-to-answer turnkey solution for commercial laboratories, enabling a multifold increase in testing capacity.

Therapeutics: Synthia - coded by chemists for chemists

Engineered by organic chemists and computer scientists over the course of 15 years, Synthia is a software to simulate and test drug design to accelerate therapeutic development. It harnesses the potential of advanced, highly nuanced algorithms powered by more than 70,000 hand-coded reaction rules. The system can accelerate COVID-19 research by rapidly designing pathways to newly identified or repurposed drug targets to potentially treat this new virus.

mRNA vaccines

Vaccines are easily one of the greatest public health success stories in history, if not the greatest. When it comes to vaccines, Merck has been discovering, developing, and delivering them to help prevent disease around the world for over 100 years. It is credited with having distributed ~190M doses around the world in 2019 alone.

Vibhu reveals that Merck is particularly excited about mRNA vaccines and the possible transformational outcomes.

Compared to traditional vaccines, mRNA vaccines can generate a stronger type of immunity by stimulating the immune system to make antibodies and immune system killer cells — a double strike at the virus.

Key considerations to making an infections-ready nation

Vibhu advised four key considerations to making India an infections-ready nation: strategic partnerships to fuel innovation and manufacturing, access to global research and technology, economics of producing innovative vaccines  and Infrastructure development

India’s strengths in infectious disease management

Talking about how India can play a greater global role in infectious disease preparedness and management Vibhu elaborated on the country's strengths and areas it could improve on.

“India is a country with a significantly large pool of infectious disease researchers. And a digital economy with strong domain expertise,” said Vibhu as he contextualised India’s strengths in the infectious disease management arena.

He added that India’s position as producer of half of the world’s vaccines could be leveraged to great effect in addition to its legacy as a pharmacy to the world with its large number of generic pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities. He also cited India’s emergence as a diagnostics manufacturing hub as a shot in the arm to help it lead on a global scale.

Where India can improve

Talking about the country's key challenges to being an infectious disease management powerhouse, Vibhu spoke about an urgent need for cross-sectoral collaboration in addition to stronger industry-academia partnerships. Contextualising how better R&D could be a shot in the arm for the sector he advised higher research and development spending for innovation.

Citing challenges in India’s digitally skilled labour force market, he called for greater adoption of technology and modern tools to create a digitally skilled workforce in the country.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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