“We are doing reasonably well on quality of research output”

Mentioned Dr Soumya Swaminathan who as the chief of network of ICMR institutes, looks forward to focus on key health priorities and generating scientific evidence for achieving public health impact. She also aims to work towards expanding the scope and quality of biomedical research being conducted in medical colleges in India

Dr Soumya Swaminathan who joined her current high profile assignment in August 2015, has got vast outstanding experience in health research and research administration. Prior to her current assignment, she was the Director, National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT), Chennai from August 2012 to August 2015. Her extra-ordinary research work has been well recognized and featured in reputed national and international journals. She is a fellow of all Indian National Academies of Sciences.

In an exclusive interaction with the BioVoice, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Secretary, Department of Health Research (DHR), Government of India shared her valuable insights on the outcomes at the recently concluded India-Africa Health Summit besides talking about various achievements as well as priority areas of ICMR. Read the details below:

BV_icon_finalWhy was there a need for India-Africa Health Meet? What were the important issues addressed at the forum?

India and Africa both face similar challenges in health, including commonalities in disease burden, similar demographics and environment, limited resources to run large-scale public health programmes, and a strong desire to attain self-sufficiency in disease management. At a time when emerging economies are increasingly moving away from Western funding models and looking to develop independent capacities, it is critical that we pool our resources together to minimize risks and share benefits.

The India-Africa Health Sciences Meet was a major milestone in boosting health collaboration between the two regions. The senior-most political and scientific leadership from both regions was represented at the Meet, and discussions were focused along three critical areas of partnership:

  1. Training and capacity strengthening of different kinds of health professionals, including doctors, paramedics, nurses, technicians, clinical and biomedical researchers, lab managers and a host of other allied professions.

  2. Identifying diseases and priorities for research collaborations between the two regions, as well as deliberating on the modalities and frameworks for implementation, including leveraging global funding for innovative projects.

  3. Exploring local manufacturing capabilities for drugs and diagnostics in Africa through industrial cooperation with India as well as harmonization of regulatory policies for increased pharmaceutical trade and joint manufacturing initiatives.

BV_icon_finalWhat were the major outcomes and partnership areas that emerged from the deliberations at the Meet?

The Meet was a direct follow-up of the historic India Africa Forum Summit III held last year under the leadership of the honorable Prime Minister. Our intent was to hear diverse perspectives from across the table and formulate a clear framework for partnership in the health sciences. The outcomes have exceeded our initial expectations, both in terms of content and the range of participation from across the two regions.

The Meet concluded that the foundational principles for the partnership will include reciprocity, leveraging complementary strengths and existing platforms, exploring creative funding models including Public-Private Partnerships and international funding, and acknowledging regional priorities within Africa for bilateral and multilateral engagement. The key diseases and areas of focus for initiating collaboration will include infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, and non-infectious diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Capacity building efforts will largely be implemented through additional scholarships for medical and health professionals, fellowships for emerging scientists, and training and exchange programmes. To propel pharmaceutical manufacturing and trade, the need for further consultation towards regulatory alignment was emphasized along with collaborations in producing formulation drugs in Africa in a phased manner with supply of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) from India.

In order to amplify our research output, we need to adopt an ecosystem strengthening approach by consistently investing in human resources over the next 15-20 years and creating attractive avenues and rewarding career paths for research professionals across the country.

BV_icon_finalThe general perception on quantity and quality of medical research happening in India is not so encouraging. Your viewpoint? What are the steps India must take to improve the scenario?

India’s annual research output currently stands at 140 publications per million population, which is significantly lower than the Western average of about 2000 publications per million population. In order to amplify our research output, we need to adopt an ecosystem strengthening approach by consistently investing in human resources over the next 15-20 years and creating attractive avenues and rewarding career paths for research professionals across the country. This includes attracting more young people for higher education in the STEM disciplines, and expanding research grants for young investigators. At the same time, we also need to ensure good facilities and infrastructure is available to carry out cutting-edge research at academic centres of excellence in the country.

In terms of the quality of our research output, I think we are doing reasonably well. Our publications are receiving the attention of the global academic community, and our science and scientists are respected at the international stage. A recent analysis by the Department of Science and Technology and ICMR has shown that citation impact – one of the measures for assessing the influence of research – is at par with the global average for the field.

BV_icon_finalThe Indian healthcare system is yet to bridge the huge rural urban divide. What role has ICMR been playing to reach out to the marginal populations of the country?

ICMR’s role is to conduct and promote research to find new tools, technologies and strategies to address high-priority health concerns for the country – both in rural and urban areas. Until the recent past, marginalized communities – both in rural and urban sectors – were observed to have a disproportionately high incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and leprosy. However, trends have been shifting and there is an increased incidence of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease across all sections of the population.

We will especially be focusing on research to develop new preventive and therapeutic strategies for diseases of concern such as malaria, Kala Azar, leprosy and others.

ICMR has successfully developed technologies that have impacted policy in managing infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and leprosy. In addition to disease surveillance through our highly specialized network, we have conducted national taskforce studies for diseases of concern such as diabetes, stroke and nutritional deficiencies.

We are increasingly focusing on implementation research, and have signed numerous MoUs with national disease control programmes to influence new policies and study the impact of existing health programmes.

BV_icon_finalYou have recently completed one year as ICMR DG. How do you look back at the various activities of utmost importance during this tenure so far?

During the last year, ICMR has established the Evidence to Policy Unit and Health Technology Assistance Board in order to accelerate policy and programmatic adoption on new strategies and interventions that have demonstrated success in research settings. Additionally, ICMR is preparing a new vision and strategy document to guide its work over the next five years.

ICMR has also closely worked with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to facilitate the introduction of a new leprosy vaccine for elimination of the disease. A similar effort was carried out for the rotavirus vaccine, and introduction of new drugs for tuberculosis treatment. We are conducting the first National Tuberculosis Prevalence Survey in the country since 1956.

Another important development has been the establishment of new partnerships with international development agencies as well as industry leaders, such as our collaboration with Sun Pharma towards eliminating malaria in Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh.

BV_icon_finalWhat would be key priority areas both immediate as well as long term as far as medical research in India is concerned?

ICMR is working to develop a comprehensive National Health and Nutrition Survey to assess the health status and priorities in the country. Nutritional policy and advocacy are going to remain major focus areas of medical research moving into the future. We will especially be focusing on research to develop new preventive and therapeutic strategies for diseases of concern such as malaria, Kala Azar, leprosy and others. We will also gear up efforts in developing innovative tools and technologies to combat drug resistant tuberculosis. Another important avenue for ICMR will be cost-effectiveness and impact analysis of different health interventions.