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ISSUE No. 64
Interview of Dr. Rashmi Barbhaiya, CEO, Advinus Therapeutics, TATA Group, India

Tell us more about your background. How long have you worked in the sector of biotechnology?

My doctorate degree is in the field of clinical pharmacology which I studied in England.  I have spent 21 years at Bristol Myers Squibb in USA and feel fortunate to have made contributions in bringing a number of life-saving drugs to the market during my tenure at BMS.  In 2002, I returned to India as the President of R&D of Ranbaxy and in 2005, I co-founded Advinus Therapeutics, a research-based pharma company. I have now been in this sector for over 35 years.

How can Mauritius position itself as a platform for biotechnology? What does the sector represent for Mauritius and Africa in the future?

The global Pharma R&D scenario is changing. Productivity is going down and spending is going up, the resulting gap is not sustainable. This is where emerging economies can make a difference in terms of increased productivity, better efficiency, shorter lead times and reduced cost. The net result is better ROI.

The sector represents an opportunity for Mauritius and Africa to address local public health issues, rather than continue to depend on the outside world. It also offers an opportunity to create a new knowledge-based industry. This will obviously create jobs and a new image for the country. Last but not least, this is an opportunity for economic growth, for a clean industry without any environmental impact issues.


Does Mauritius have the right investment structure and infrastructure to develop its biotechnology sector?

From what I heard from various high-level government officials as well as ministers at BioAfrica 2014, there is a commitment for the development of a knowledge-based industry. This is critical for any emerging country to establish itself in a new field. There are academic institutions with some outstanding people. And finally the government has cleared the path for clinical trials. Above all, Mauritius has young talents who are keen to make a difference.

The country, obviously, requires additional infrastructure which must be put in place. However, with the human capital that Mauritius has and the financial commitment it is willing to make, this is all in the realm of possibilities. Mauritius also has unique natural resources which need to be leveraged to build a biotechnology and pharma R&D eco system.

What are the challenges that the sector is facing? In your opinion, how can Mauritius further promote this sector?

Key challenges for the sector are reduced productivity, increased spending, inefficiency, long time-lines, outdated regulations and cost of R&D. Above all, there are affordability and accessibility issues, particularly in Asian and African countries.

To promote this sector,  the private sector and government can play vital roles. In addition, there are opportunities for academic institutions as well. Below are some specific suggestions:

1) Private sector

Value-added partnerships and joint ventures. The sugar Industry is looking at diversification. Here is an opportunity. Clinical trials, here is an opportunity to bring an experienced team that can collaborate in  state- of-the-art hospitals with  well-trained medical personnel and doctors. There are companies focusing on traditional and herbal medicines, again, there is an opportunity for partnership. Exploring marine source to look for new medicines. We have not even scratched the surface here.

2) Government

  • New regulations that address global health needs of Mauritius, not just blindly following regulations of developed countries.
  • Tough laws to protect patients participating in clinical trials from any sort of exploitation. Patients’ safety and protection should be of paramount importance. 

 

  • Thorough scrutiny of clinical protocols submitted for approval of conducting clinical trials in Mauritius and timely approval are two additional important aspects that the government needs to pay attention to. 
  • Passing preclinical bill that has been stuck for a while. Mauritius is committed to biotech sector and clinical trials. These are two significant important opportunities that will not be fully leveraged if the preclinical bill is not passed.

 

  • Financial incentives in terms of grant or soft loans to those who are willing to take some risk to set up a new industry in Mauritius. 
  • Short and long-term tax advantages.
  • Identifications of sectors with the health area to promote. For example, Ayurveda-based wellness clinic and resort that can enhance the existing tourism industry. Preclinical development services that can extend into clinical trials. Last but not least, herbal or traditional medicines and exploration of marine-based technology to find new medicines.

3) Role academic institutions can play

There are local institutions which can play a significant role in the training of young scientists. In addition, research being conducted in these institutions need to be further evaluated - translation of basic research into potential drug candidates. This is where openness to partner with institutions with track record of regulatory studies outside Mauritius will make a difference.

There are also opportunities for training in Ayurveda medicine.

Mauritius can also explore the possibility of attracting one leading medical college to set up a medical campus here.  For the long-term future of this sector, there is also a need to set up a state-of-the-art pharmacy school that reflects today's needs for pharma innovation.

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