This article gives details of the role of India’s science & tech Institutions in the fight against COVID-19.
With no vaccine in sight for at least the next 12-18 months, it seems the fight for rescuing humankind from this deadly virus has only just begun. With no real global consensus on the response mechanism, each nation is left to fend for itself when it comes protecting its own citizens.
India’s Quick Response
With over 1.3 billion people in Her bosom, the spread of coronavirus in India and India’s response mechanisms are being closely watched over by the rest of the world.
India is battling this virus with all its might. Invoking the Disaster Management Act of 2015, India announced a complete lockdown on 25 March for a period of 21 days.
The early announcement of a lockdown, when the infected count was less than 400, was well appreciated by WHO. Setting up of a COVID-19 Task Force and announcement of a series of ‘social distancing’ and other serious measures followed suit. A few such important measures are listed below.
- Started tracing contacts of COVID-affected people.
- Suspended all existing visas (except diplomatic, official, UN/international organisations, employment, project visas).
- Suspended all international and domestic flights, trains and bus services until April 15.
- Initiated economic measures targeting the poor so that none goes hungry during this period.
- Converted the coaches of Indian Railways as isolation wards.
R&D Institutions Taking Up The Challenge
Ministry of Health, Science and Technology has adopted a well-coordinated approach to activate the scientific community of the country. This approach has helped in providing a common platform for sharing of best practices, collaboration of work, development of need-based innovations, and in avoiding duplication of research work. To cut it short, in such a short period of time, India was able to put thousands of researchers in the country to work round the clock to develop new testing kits, protective equipment, respiratory devices, etc.
India’s apex S&T Agency and its Efforts
Department of Science and Technology (DST) through its autonomous institutions and statutory bodies has instituted three ways to fight COVID-19:
- Extensive mapping of solutions requiring R&D support, startups with viable products requiring facilitation and manufacturing support;
- Identification of market deployable products requiring seed support; and
- 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)
Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) is an autonomous body under DST. Under its Intensification of Research in High Priority Area (IRPHA) scheme, SERB had invited competitive proposals having a strong interdisciplinary component to ramp up national R&D efforts for epidemiological studies, studies on immune response and immunity during respiratory viral infections, new anti-virals, vaccines, and affordable diagnostic against COVID-19 and related respiratory viral infections.
Apart from this, SERB also invited short-term ‘Core Research Grant Special Call on COVID-19’ to meet the current requirements of the health workers such as (a) affordable and portable rapid diagnostic kits or tools, (b) computational identification and validation of COVID-19 molecular targets, and (c) drug repurposing against key COVID-19 targets and in-vitro/clinical dose testing of nutritional supplements for immunity.
The first set of five projects has been selected by SERB, which will be supported for further development into implementable technologies.
Three of these projects concern the highly important issue of antiviral and virustatic surface coating of inanimate surfaces, such as personal protection equipment (PPE); the fourth one deals with the identification of metabolite biomarkers in COVID-19 infected patients enabling therapeutic target identification; and the last one concerns with the development of antibodies against the receptor-binding domain of the spike glycoprotein of coronavirus.
Artificial Manual Breathing Unit (AMBU)
Sri Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology (SCTIMST), Trivandrum, has developed a ventilator system based on an artificial manual breathing unit (AMBU). The institute’s automated AMBU ventilator with inputs from clinical faculty will assist in the breathing of the critical patients who have no access to ICU ventilators. The technology has rapidly moved into clinical trials and manufacturing through Wipro3D, Bangalore. Apart from this emergency ventilator, the Institute is also making efforts in developing low-cost AI-enabled digital X-ray detectors for screening COVID-19 patients.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), an autonomous institution under DST, has come up with a one-step curable anti-microbial coating. This coating is capable of completely killing the influenza virus and resistant pathogenic bacteria and fungi, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, fluconazole-resistant C. albicans spp. and a range of virus type Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-19).
On 3 April, DST has set up a ‘Centre for Augmenting WAR with COVID-19 Health Crisis’ (CAWACH) at a total cost of Rs 56 Cr to evaluate and support up to 50 innovations and start-ups that address COVID-19 challenges. CAWACH is set up in the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), a technology business incubator at IIT Bombay. Supported by DST, CAWACH will provide timely support at different stages for fast-tracking the commercialization process and scale-up of technologies across the country. The Government of India firmly believes that these R&D initiatives will certainly help the country in overcoming the pandemic in the not-too-distant future.