Even as we grapple with the more lethal Second Wave of Covid-19, we may take a moment to step back and recognise just how the virus has acted to infuse our lives with a healthy curiosity for science, if not the rigour of scientific inquiry.
Not just the properties of the virus as exhibited by its structure and behaviour, or how it engages with the human body in terms of its pathogenesis, or even how it is mutating, through a robust genome sequencing network spread out across the country, that has been the envy of Indian scientists. It also teaches us a thing or two about public health management in a crisis of unforeseeable proportions. The vital task of building up an emergency national stockpile of medical equipment has also been brought home to us.
This week a strand of the national discourse that we are all part of reached a logical conclusion: in order to be better-prepared for future pandemics, there is a need to revive vaccine manufacturing in the country.
The Institute of Public Health in Mohakhali has a proud history in this field, having once churned out millions of doses for years of at least five different vaccines - for smallpox, cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid and rabies. Unfortunately, the last dose it delivered (of the rabies vaccine) was a good ten years ago now. At a time when vaccine nationalism has successfully trumped its kinder, gentler twin in the form of vaccine diplomacy, Bangladesh cannot afford to remain dependent on foreign sources for its supplies of existing and future vaccines.
Bangladesh this week approved “in principle” the local co-production of Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccines. The idea is to form joint ventures involving local companies. But Bangladeshi drug manufacturers in the private sector have not appeared very enthused by this.
That is understandable. Vaccines by their very nature tend not to be the most profitable prospects for drug manufacturers – after all, two doses and you’re off. Pharmaceutical companies make the bulk of their profits selling prescription drugs, often for chronic diseases. Given that reality, the government-owned IPH, at the heart of the country’s health hierarchy, is a choice we need to look at very seriously. It has been operating with a vastly reduced mandate for the last 10-15 years, but retains its sprawling grounds within the DGHS complex. The government must invest generously, adopting a long-term outlook, when it comes to installing the very latest technology and production facilities. Guidance and expertise from either our Chinese or Russian friends would be most welcome in this. The objective must be clear: the IPH will be restored to its lost glory not only for the purpose of attaining herd immunity via vaccination against Covid-19. Looking beyond Covid-19, the revival of the IPH can put us on a strong footing for the future, in a world where pandemics may no longer come once in a century, but rather once every decade.