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REGIONS ASIA-PACIFIC


THE OPPORTUNITY IN GENOMICANDLIFE SCIENCES IS LIKE THE IT OPPORTUNITY


Covid-19 propels Indian biotech to the fore A


A FEW PIONEERING COMPANIES ARE LEADING THE COUNTRY’S NEXT BIG THING. MEGHA BAHREE REPORTS


s thenovel coronavirus started to make its way through India in 2020, Anu Acharya, chief


executive of Mapmygenome, a genome sequencing start-up in Hyderabad in southern India, had a proposal for her clients: a Covid-19 risk and immunity report. Based on their genes, the report


would tell them howlikely they were to get the virus, howsevere it would be and what amount of helpful vitamins to take if they wanted to boost theirimmune systems. “One thing everyone is trying to understand


is why is Covid-19 affecting some people more than others,” says Ms Acharya. “A lot can be explained by your genetics as well as what you’ve done to mitigate risks.”


Genetic vs environmental factors The complex interplay between human and pathogen genomes plays a massive role in whether outbreaks become pandemics, and many companies around the world are trying to understand that interplay with Sars-Cov-2 — the virus behind Covid-19. India has stood out because despite having


the second highest number of infections in the world — with the number of cases having crossed 10.65 million and 153,000 deaths in a country of 1.35 billion with a stressed health- care system — the pandemic has not been as severe as was initially feared. It is currently reporting under 20,000 new cases per day. However, it is clear that the extent of the


pandemic in India is not really known. In a research paper that Ms Acharya co-authored, researchers surveilled for Covid-19 infection in the southern state of Karnataka in both rural and urban areas between June 15 and August 29. Using RT-PCR genetic testing, they found that approximately 31.5 million residents of the state had been infected — 96.4 times the publicly reported 327,076 cases as of August 29,


60


suggesting that the epidemic was growing rap- idly during August. “Our findings provide new evidence that


the Covid-19 epidemic in India has affected rural areas almost as severely as urban areas,” the authors wrote. Such real-time RT-PCR tests have not been


the standard of care in most parts of the world, although Covid-19 has “shifted the timeline by five to 10 years”, saysSumit Jamuar, chief execu- tive of Global Gene Corp, a genome sequencing firm based in Mumbai, which has its R&D labs there as well as in Cambridge in the UK. For instance, the first clinical case of Covid-


19 was identified in December 2019; the first genome was sequenced in January 2020 and the first vaccine trial started shortly after in February. The first vaccine was approved in record time in December 2020. The speed of that developmentis evenmorestarkwhencom- pared to the path of the Ebola virus. The world had its first clinical case in 1976, its first genome was sequenced in 1993, its vaccines went on trial in 2003 and 2015, and a vaccine was finally approved in 2019. “If I knew what risks you had, I can ward


off some of those risks,” says Mr Jamuar. “That’s the paradigm that we’re moving toward, fundamentally.”


Researchbias While those linksmay already have been estab- lished for some diseases in the West, that information is based on a data pool where about 78 per cent of the genes are of a white, European ancestry. India, which makes up 20 per cent of the world’s population (and that includes 4500 of the world’s 10,000 ethnic groups), contributes barely 2% of the genomic data, says Mr Jamuar. His firm is trying to fill that gap and is working with some hospitals and labs in the country to collect data from volunteers to study their DNA for both rare and common genetic disorders to ultimately


www.fDiIntelligence.com February/March 2021


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