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View from India: Covid-19 keeps R&D busy

Dealing with the rapidly increasing number of Covid-19 infections in India has opened channels for collaborative work and research. The approach is multidisciplinary and technology is being used at scale for mass reach.

The Government of India (GoI) and state governments, along with science and technical institutions, are working on various solutions and test kits to detect symptoms of the virus. These innovative scientific measures will help in bolstering the Make in India Initiative.

The Department of Science and Technology-Science and Engineering Board (DST-SERB) has announced special research projects to ramp up national R&D efforts against the epidemic.

DST-SERB has put together a special expert committee, which has selected five projects whose technologies will help find effective measures to combat the infection. As of now, there is no vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 but R&D labs and premier educational institutions have begun work in this direction.

The first of the five projects will help identify novel therapies; a potential metabolite biomarker signature for the Covid infection needs to be identified to make this happen.

The second revolves around the development of cost-effective virucidal coatings for surgical masks. This is required to prevent infectious diseases caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome-related novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).

The third R&D project will focus on antiviral surface coatings to prevent the infection from spreading. Small molecular and polymeric compounds coated on various surfaces will kill respiratory viruses upon contact.

The fourth project will develop chemical formulations for decontamination of surfaces, with a focus on materials that can, for example, be used in mops to remove any viruses or bacteria.

The fifth and final project is concerned with the development of antibody-based capture of 2019-nCoV and inactivating it at the point of entry through lipid-based in-situ gels.

Scientists are also being urged by the DST to put on their thinking caps and work on mathematical models that will reveal how Covid-19 spreads in a population. Their insights will offer data-driven forecasts of coronavirus infections.

GoI has launched a new mobile app called Aarogya Setu, an official source of Covid-19 information, which aims to connect citizens to essential health services. It supports Indian vernaculars and warns users if they have come close to people infected with coronavirus. It can be accessed free of charge on the Google Play Store.

The Union Ministry of Agriculture's web-based platform, e-Nam (National Agriculture Market), has launched new features fine-tuned to decongest markets, enabling farmers to sell their produce safely through initiatives such as remote bidding and mobile payments.

Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the administrative body responsible for civic amenities in Bangalore, has brought in drone developers to maintain levels of hygiene and disinfect public places including markets, bus stops and railway stations. Drone developers Neel Sagar G (an aerospace engineer), Vinay Kumar (an aeronautical engineer), Nishanth Murali (a civil engineer) and Naga Praveen (an electronic engineer) have used six hexacopter drones, which can carry 15 litres of disinfectant and operate for six to seven hours a day.

Covid-19 has paved the way for new collaborations between educational institutions and medical bodies. A case in point is the partnership between the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Roorkee and All India Institute of Medical Science, Rishikesh. Together, they plan to develop a low-cost ventilator called Prana Vayu. A prototype is being created and the technology is expected to be low-cost, safe and reliable, as well as lend itself for mass production.

With some innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, the R&D Team at IIT Guwahati has developed a polymerase chain reaction machine. The machine can analyse 1,000 samples in 12 hours and two such units are already up and running at the Guwahati Medical College.

Across India, ventilators are in great demand and there are shortages. The Indian Institute of Science, located in Bangalore, has sprung into action with a group of engineers coming together to build a prototype of an electro-mechanical ventilator. The ventilator is being made from scratch with Indian components and is expected to be ready in the coming weeks.

Pune’s Mylab laboratory has arrived at test kits for R-PCR (rapid-polymerase chain reaction). This is being implemented in Kerala for testing people with Covid-19 symptoms.

The Indian Council of Medical Research has approved of an at-home screening test kit created by genetic and microbiome testing firm Bione based out of Bangalore. The finger-prick test is the first of its kind in the country during this pandemic.

While a real breakthrough solution for Covid-19 is yet to happen, all these efforts will hopefully send out alerts to the country and its citizens in view of such virus spreads in future. Let’s wish that these solutions are fast tracked to be deployed to every last individual.

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