Even as Bharat Biotech’s homegrown Covid vaccine Covaxin proves to be the crowning glory of the Indian health tech sector, dozens of smaller start-ups are breaking new ground on telemedicine, preventive analytics, etc. The scope for growth is massive. That’s why the Tata Group and Reliance Retail have spent millions to muscle their way into this segment.
As more people log on to the Internet in India, the health-tech sector is beginning to gather momentum. Though a vast majority of companies in this sector focus on mobile apps, online dispensaries, healthcare platforms and wellness analytics, the biggest health-tech breakthrough coming out of India in recent times has undoubtedly been the development of a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus by Bharat Biotech, a leading domestic biotechnology company.
Among the most effective vaccines in the world, Covaxin has been found to be effective against the aggressively virulent B.1.67 strain that has been detected in India as well as the variant of the B.1.1.7 virus detected in the UK, according to a report in the peer reviewed journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Covaxin “produced neutralising titres (concentration of antibodies) against all key emerging variants… There was a modest reduction in neutralization by a factor of 1.95 was observed against B.1.617 variant compared to vaccine variant (D614G). Despite this reduction, neutralising titre levels with B.1.617 remain above levels expected to be protective," the report said.
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As many as 21 countries have reported the B.1.167 variant among Covid patients. A vast majority of such cases, however, have been reported from India.
A study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which collaborated with Bharat Biotech in developing Covaxin, corroborates this. “Covaxin neutralises multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 and effectively neutralises the double mutant strain as well,” the study says.
Now, the Covax group, which is focused on finding a global solution for the Covid-19 pandemic, has asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to speed up the approval for Covaxin. This will make it eligible for inclusion of this Made in India vaccine in the Covax Global Initiative and qualify it to distribution under the initiative. So far, WHO approvals have been forthcoming only for vaccines developed in the US and Europe.
At a recent meeting with the top management of Bharat Biotech, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said the government would provide the fullest support diplomatically to the company for securing the approval of WHO as well as some important countries.
When it happens, it will provide a huge leg up for the Indian heath tech sector.
Even as the Covid-19 pandemic draws all the media focus, there are hundreds of other companies, mostly start-ups that are changing the landscape of the health-tech sector in India, which has traditionally been known as the global leader of the generics segment of the market.
According to a Nasscom study on health-tech products titled “Scripting a Promising Future”, “Healthcare is becoming increasingly patient centric. Access to affordable healthcare combined with mobility solutions is driving the growth of the health-tech market.”
The Indian health-tech market, which was worth $1.5 billion in 2020, is expected to grow to $25 billion by 2025 on the back of telemedicine and preventive healthcare initiatives of a host of start-ups.
Following the unveiling of the much-awaited telemedicine guidelines last year, the segment looks poised for rapid growth.
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There’s massive scope for growth. Consider this: India spends about 3.6 per cent of GDP on healthcare. The corresponding figures for the US are 16.9 per cent, Germany 11.25 per cent, Russia 5.3 per cent and China 5 per cent. Even if we assume that India will add one percentage point to healthcare spending over the next few years, that’s an additional opportunity of close to $30 billion a year.
Deep pocketed investors realise this and are investing in India for the long run. According to Inc42 Plus Annual Indian Tech Start-up Report 2020, the heath tech sector mobilised $455 million from 77 transactions in 2020, an 11 per cent fall from the figure of $512 million from 62 deals the previous year. It should be borne in mind that India shut down completely for three months last year to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and was only partially open for much of the rest of the year.
Several large Indian business houses have now entered the health tech sector. The Tata Group recently signed an agreement to buy a 65 per cent stake in online dispensary 1mg.com, valuing the company at about $175 million. Img.com’s existing investors include Sequoia, IFC and Omidyar.
Then, in another high profile transaction, Reliance Retail acquired a 60 per cent stake in Netmeds.com, another online dispensary for $85 million. Healthpix, IVF Access, Phable and Curefit were among the Indian health tech start-ups that raised funds in 2020.
The big investors included Temasek Holdings, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar, JSW Ventures besides the Tata Group and Reliance.
With the pandemic making people wary of face-to-face interactions, the health tech sector is likely to grow at a fast clip in the quarters ahead.