How India’s Science & Technology Institutions Are fighting COVID-19
According to John Hopkins’s tally, over one million people have already fallen prey to the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 and 74,000 people have succumbed to death. The numbers are still growing thick and fast. In India, more than 4000 have fallen ill and have witnessed about 136 deaths so far.
Scientists and researchers across the world are chasing together for a potential vaccine against COVID-19. India is also playing a big role at this with the World Health Organization. Through international platforms like Crowdfight COVID-19, thousands of researchers around the world are offering their expertise, time and help to fight against the novel coronavirus. Social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are connecting researchers all over the world to provide their services voluntarily.
It seems the mission for rescuing humankind from this deadly virus has just begun with no vaccine in sight for at least the next 12-18 months. Each nation is left to defend for itself to protect its citizens with no real global consensus on the response mechanism.
India’s quick response
India, the country of 1.3 billion population is fighting the virus with all its might under theleadership of Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the whole world is closely watching India’s response mechanisms. India announced a complete lockdown of the country on 25 March for a period of 21 days, invoking the Disaster Management Act of 2015. This act of lockdown even before the infected count was 400 was well appreciated by the World Health Organization. India announced a series of ‘social distancing’ measures, the COVID-19 Task Force other strict measures to contain the spread of the virus. Some of those measures were
- Tracing contacts of COVID-19 infected people
- Suspension of all existing visas (except official, UN/international organizations, diplomatic, employment, project visas)
- Suspension of trains, bus services, and all international and domestic flights until April 15
- Initiation of measures to support the poor economically so that none goes hungry during the lockdown period.
- Indian Railway coaches converted to isolation wards.
R&D Institutions Taking Up The Challenge
While the slowdown in trade between India and the rest of the world is happening on one side, India’s pro-active, pre-emptive and a ‘whole government’ approach to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is slightly healing the impacts on the other side. The supply of many essential commodities required for this fight has been interrupted. The list of essential commodities include masks, COVID-19 testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), alcohol-based sanitizers, ventilators (breathing devices), dress materials for frontline health workers, etc.
To produce these as fast as possible and in bulk is a big challenge. In response, the ‘Make in India’ Programme was vigorously activated by the Government of India involving many Research & Development (R&D) institutions of the country.
A well-coordinated approach has been adopted to activate the scientific community of the country, under the leadership of Dr. Harsha Vardhan, Hon’ble Minister for Health, Science and Technology, and Earth Sciences. This aided in providing a common platform for the collaboration of work, sharing best practices, avoiding duplication of work and in developing need-based innovations. India was able to put thousands of researchers in the country to work together in a short period of time to develop new protective equipment, respiratory devices, and testing kits.
India’s apex S&T agency and its efforts to fight COVID-19
India’s apex science and technology (S&T) agency is the Department of Science and Technology (DST). DST, with the help of sister ministries and institutions, is taking the lead to address a plethora of issues related to COVID-19, by coordinating the effort to map and upscale appropriate technologies in India. DST is also scouting for solutions to prepare the country for the urgent needs arising out of the pandemic.
The three ways instituted by DST to fight COVID-19 are
- Extensive mapping of solutions requiring R&D support, startups with viable products requiring manufacturing and facilitation support
- Identification of market deployable products requiring seed support
- Support for solutions already in the market but requiring substantial scale-up to augment their manufacturing infrastructure and capabilities.
Intensification of Research in High Priority Area (IRPHA)
The Intensification of Research in High Priority Area (IRPHA) scheme by the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) had invited competitive proposals with a strong interdisciplinary component to accelerate India’s R&D efforts for immune response studies, epidemiological studies and studies on vaccines, affordable diagnostic against COVID-19 and on new anti-virals.
A short term ‘Core Research Grant Special Call on COVID-19’ was also invited by SERB to meet the current requirements of health workers such as computational identification and validation of COVID-19 molecular targets, drug repurposing against key COVID-19 targets and in-vitro/clinical dose testing of nutritional supplements for immunity and affordable and portable rapid diagnostic kits or tools.
SERB has selected the first set of five projects which will receive support for further development and implementation. Three projects address the highly important issue of virustatic and antiviral surface coating of inanimate surfaces, such as personal protection equipment (PPE); the fourth one concerns the identification of metabolite biomarkers in COVID-19 infected patients enabling therapeutic target identification, and the last one is regarding the development of antibodies against the receptor-binding domain of the spike glycoprotein of coronavirus.
An important step towards containing the spread of the virus is by tracking and trailing the virus through a data-driven approach. To facilitate this, SERB announced a short term project on mathematical modeling of COVID-19 spread, forecasting and inferences from pandemic data, statistical machine learning, focused algorithms for infectious disease modeling and quantitative social science approaches for epidemiological models. Mathematical models may help in assessing the potential for sustained transmission to occur in new areas, in the absence of preventive and curable measures.
Research Proposals Invited By TDB
Proposals from Indian companies and enterprises to address protection and home-based respiratory interventions for COVID 19 patients have been invited by the Technology Development Board (TDB), a statutory body under DST. Industries can help in India’s fight against COVID-19 by providing indigenously developed/technologically imported need-based innovative solutions like cost-effective thermal scanning devices, low-cost masks, rapid diagnostic kits, oxygenators, ventilators and technologies for sanitization of large areas as well as for contactless entry.
Artificial manual breathing unit (AMBU)
A ventilator system based on an artificial manual breathing unit (AMBU) has been developed by Sri Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology (SCTIMST), Trivandrum. The breathing of the critical patients who have no access to ICU ventilators can be assisted with the institute’s automated AMBU ventilator with inputs from clinical faculty. The Institute is also trying to develop low-cost AI-enabled digital X-ray detectors for screening COVID-19 patients.
A one-step curable anti-microbial coating has been developed by the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR). This coating is capable of completely killing the influenza virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-19) virus and resistant pathogenic bacteria and fungi, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and fluconazole-resistant C. albicans spp. The microorganisms get deactivated on the coated surface. The coating can be used to protect clothes, equipment of health workers and personal protective tools during an outbreak.
Grassroots innovations developed by individuals and local communities in any technological field are receiving support from the National Innovation Foundation (NSF), another autonomous institution of DST. NSF has invited citizens to come up with creative and innovative ideas through its ‘Challenge COVID-19 Competition (C3)’ for tackling the following issues: reducing transmission of coronavirus; healthy food for nutrition and boosting immunity; supply and distribution of essential items to people, especially the elderly living alone; sanitizing one’s hands, body, home items, and home, public places wherever required; PPEs and rapid diagnostic testing facilities for capacity building of healthcare; gainful engagement of people at home; rethinking “contactless” devices for post-corona implementation needs and varying needs of the different segment of the population during COVID-19. This initiative will encourage the masses to participate actively in the government’s programs against the pandemic, besides inculcating scientific temperament among them.
Synergizing S&T efforts
The ‘COVID-19 Task Force’ set up by the Government of India is mapping the COVID-19 related technology capabilities in academia, research and development labs, start-ups, and the industries as a part of its fight against the pandemic. The force consists of representatives from Department of Biotechnology (DBT), DST, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEIT), Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Ministry of Micro, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) and Startup India.
Over 500 establishments in the areas of drugs, diagnostics, protection gear, ventilators, disinfecting systems, etc. have been identified by this task force. The solutions identified include sanitizers, affordable kits for screening, data analytics for tracking monitoring, and controlling the spread of outbreak through AI and IoT-based solutions, ventilators, oxygenators, masks, and other protective gear.
The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a sister department of DST and the Department of Biotechnology have also announced COVID-19 Research Consortium Program and are seeking proposals from academia, industry, industry-academia partnership with a focus on vaccines, affordable diagnostics, repurposing of drugs, novel therapeutics or any other intervention for control of COVID-19.
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), under its New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI), is also seeking proposals from industries for innovative diagnostics (rapid, affordable, cutting edge), effective containment interventions, novel drugs or repurposed drugs, assistive devices such as affordable ventilators, new vaccines or repurposed vaccine, and track-and-trace technologies.
Other rapid, innovative and economic solutions are also being contributed by other institutions. For example, a paper strip-based testing assay has been developed by the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB). The viral RNA of the SARS-Cov-2 virus can be detected using this assay within an hour.
Many research groups are focussing on basic science and other social aspects of this pandemic like sequencing of local strain, virus morphogenesis & development, virus-host interaction, genetic variants linked with virulence, evolution and transmission pattern, collection of epidemiological data, and pathogenesis studies. These studies are very much required for the development of therapeutic drugs and vaccines against COVID-19.
S&T at private labs
The process of the development of diagnostics, vaccines and novel therapeutics has indeed been accelerated by the efforts and contributions from private players. Mylab Discovery Solutions, a Pune-based molecular diagnostics company, developed the first COVID-19 rapid testing kit in India to fight the pandemic. The Indian Food and Drug Administration, the ICMR and the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) approved the testing kit. This kit can provide test results within 2.5 hours. Mylab joined hands with Serum Institute of India and AP Globale and increased the test capacity from 1.5 lakh tests a week to 20 lakh (2 million) tests a week.
An innovative anti-COVID-19 solution through a product called ‘Scitech Airon’ has been developed by an incubate company of the Pune-based Science and Technology Park (STP or Scitech Park) under the ‘Nidhi Prayas’ program of DST. The ionizer machine generates negatively charged ions at nearly a hundred million per 8 seconds, according to the claims made by the startup. The viral load within a room can be reduced by 99.7 percent (based on room size) using this machine. This can be helpful in sanitizing the hospitals and quarantine facilities.
Preparation of science-based IEC (information, education, and communication) material and spreading the same to the larger public along with technological and medical solutions, also form an important task. The panic, myth, and psychological stress the public faces can be dispelled through such IEC material. ‘Corona Kavach’, One such government-led AI-based app was developed in that direction. Currently, many tracking apps are available that would alert the user if comes close to a coronavirus infected person. However, the public has not given much attention to these apps so far.
Comprehensive efforts at war foot
India’s health and scientific community are receiving full support from the Government in the fight against COVID-19. The government agencies are trying best to provide full support to the researchers, community, private and public research labs, incubators, start-ups, industries, and entrepreneurs. To share the expertise among nations, avoid duplication and speed up the entire process when and where required, funding agencies are making an effort to link national projects with global projects.
Through a memorandum issued by the government’s Empowered Committee on COVID-19 on 21 March, Indian scientists were given access to collect blood, throat and nasal samples from COVID-19-infected people. This announcement has encouraged several research projects related to the development of diagnostic kits, vaccine, sequencing of local COVID-19 strain, and so on. Furthermore, permission to carry out the COVID-19 tests were given to all government research laboratories including those under CSIR, DBT, DST, and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The screening process and tracing of contacts are sped up with this.
DST has set up a ‘Centre for Augmenting WAR with COVID-19 Health Crisis’ (CAWACH) on 3 April, to evaluate and support up to 50 start-ups and innovations that address the challenges posed by COVID-19. CAWACH is set up in a technology business incubator at IIT Bombay, the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE). At different stages for scaling up the technologies across the country and fast-tracking the commercialization process, CAWACH will provide timely support. These research and development initiatives will definitely help the country in overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic soon.
This article is an adaption from original article published at vigyan prasar website.