India must scale up its investment in medical research, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Dr Bharam Bhargava, director-general of the ICMR, issued the call as he delivered his keynote address at the 37th Foundation Day celebrations of the Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences (SGPGIMS) in the Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow. “Investments in medical research and disease prevention are the need of the hour,” he said. The Director-General highlighted the need to scale up expenditure in the healthcare sector to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product as opposed to approximately one percent at present.
Indeed, India’s investment into the healthcare sector has long been the subject of criticism by the public health community. Public spending on healthcare has long languished at levels deemed too low to ensure a robust healthcare delivery system.
Earlier this year, an Oxfam report asserted that India has the fourth-lowest public health expenditure in the world with expenditure on health accounting for a mere four percent of total government outlays – a mere quarter of the spending levels Oxfam recommends. To this end, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Dr Harsh Vardhan last year called on state and union territory governments to scale up their investment in health to meet government targets of 2.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2025.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the consequences of an underfunded, underresourced public health system in a public health crisis of the magnitude of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Bhagarva did tout India’s efforts. “One of the key decisions that favoured us was related to herd immunity,” he said. “We resisted it, didn’t fall in its trap and worked on [the] five Ts – test, track, treat, trace and technology.”
Nonetheless, despite Bhagarva’s claims of success in tackling the pandemic, his call for enhanced funding of medical research is a salient point. The pandemic witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of resourcing and funding for medical research in the quest for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus – one that, in recent weeks, seems to have borne fruit with vaccination campaigns underway or planned in many countries. Bhagarva anticipates thirty crore Indians to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by July 2021. India is expected by a number of experts to assume centre-stage in the global vaccination campaign to fight the pandemic.
Going forward, however, the public health system in India must address the chronic underfunding of medical research. “Sadly, in India, medical research is woefully neglected,” read an article published last year. “A study analysing research output from 579 Indian medical institutions and hospitals between 2005 and 2014 reported that only 25 (4.3 percent) of the institutions produced more than 100 papers a year compared to the annual research output of 4600 papers from the Massachusetts General Hospital and 3700 from the Mayo Clinic [in the United States].”
The article goes on to assert, aligned with Bhagarva’s statements, that “we should invest in building proper research infrastructure, and make resources available for supporting medical research at the institutional level. In addition, perceptions of the stakeholders including the general public need to be addressed to create a more open environment for medical research.” Of the many lessons to take from this pandemic, it is that medical research and an ecosystem to facilitate it is a sector we neglect at our peril.