Source: times of Israel


Context:   Recently the Department of Science and Technology’s Senior Scientist Jyoti Sharma and Head, International Bilateral Cooperation Division gave details of the efforts by Indian scientists and institutions in the fight against COVID-19.

Current scenario:

  • COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, is making people all over the world go helter-skelter and clueless. 
  • As per ‘worldometer’, over one million people have already fallen prey to this virus as of writing this and the numbers are increasing thick and fast. Over 59,000 people have succumbed to death and still counting. 
  • In India, it has affected over 4000 people and has witnessed around 110 deaths so far.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has pooled in resources and scientists from across the world in its search for a potential vaccine.
  • Crowdfight COVID-19: Thousands of researchers around the world are offering their expertise, time and help through international platforms such as Crowdfight COVID-19 to fight against COVID-19.
  • No global consensus on the response mechanism: each nation is left to fend for itself when it comes protecting its own citizens.

India's response:

  • Coordination with WHO: The World Health Organization (WHO) has pooled in resources and scientists from across the world in its search for a potential vaccine. India is also playing a big role in this at WHO.
  • Invoked the Disaster Management Act of 2015.
  • Setting up of a COVID-19 Task Force and announcement of a series of ‘social distancing’ .
  • The Centre has established 10 different empowered groups including bureaucrats and specialists to ensure proper implementation of the government measures to fight against the novel coronavirus or Covid-19.
  • Early announcement of lockdown: India announced a complete lockdown on 25 March for a period of 21 days. 
  • Important measures: 
    • 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.
  • Corona kavach: A science-based IEC (information, educational and communication) app to dispel the myth, panic, and psychological stress being faced by the public.
  • To speed up the screening process and fasten tracing of contacts: The government has allowed all national research laboratories including those under CSIR, DBT, DST and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to carry out COVID-19 testing. 

R&D Institutions :

  • Challenge in front of R & D institutions:
  • Slowdown in trade between India and the rest of the world works as counter-productive and disrupting the supply chain of various essential commodities.
  • The list of such essential commodities includes COVID-19 testing kits, masks, alcohol-based sanitizers, personal protective equipment (PPEs), dress materials for frontline health workers, ventilators (breathing devices) for patients, etc.
  • The challenge is to produce these essential commodities as quickly as possible and in bulk. 
  • Approach adopted by the government: 
    • Government of India vigorously activated the ‘Make in India’ Programme, and involved various Research & Development (R&D) institutions of the country.
    • Under the leadership of  Minister for Health, Science and Technology, and Earth Sciences, a well-coordinated approach has been adopted: It is serving as a common platform for sharing of best practices, collaboration of work, development of need-based innovations, and in avoiding duplication of research work. 
    • Thousands of researchers in the country are working round the clock to develop new testing kits, protective equipment, respiratory devices, etc.

India’s apex S&T agency and efforts taken by it:

Department of Science and Technology (DST) 

  • DST is taking the lead in coordinating the effort to map and upscale appropriate technologies in India for addressing a plethora of issues related to COVID-19. 
  • It is also scouting for solutions that are more relevant to the country and also to help prepare the country for exigencies arising out of COVID-19 pandemic.
  • It has instituted three ways to fight COVID-19:
  1. extensive mapping of solutions requiring R&D support, startups with viable products requiring facilitation and manufacturing support;
  2. identification of market deployable products requiring seed support; and
  3. support for solutions already in the market but requiring substantial scale-up to augment their manufacturing infrastructure and capabilities.
  • DST has set up a ‘Centre for Augmenting WAR with COVID-19 Health Crisis’ (CAWACH): 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.
    • It will provide timely support at different stages for fast-tracking the commercialization process and scale-up of technologies across the country. 

Intensification of Research in High Priority Area (IRPHA) by SERB

  • Science and Engineering Research Board (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. 

  • Tracking and trailing the virus through a data-driven approach is an important step to contain its spread.

  • Adopting Data Driven approach: In this direction, SERB has announced a short-term project on mathematical modeling of COVID-19 spread,statistical machine learning, forecasting and inferences from pandemic data, focused algorithms for infectious disease modeling and quantitative social science approaches for epidemiological models. 

  • Short-term ‘Core Research Grant Special Call on COVID-19’ to meet the current requirements of the health workers such as 

    • affordable and portable rapid diagnostic kits or tools, 

    • 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.

Research Proposals Invited By TDB:

  • The Technology Development Board (TDB), a statutory body under DST, has invited proposals from Indian companies and enterprises to address protection and home-based respiratory interventions for COVID 19 patients. 
    • To provide need-based indigenously developed/imported technologically and innovative solutions.

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. 

Anti-microbial coating: 

  • 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).

Grassroots Innovations:

  • The National Innovation Foundation (NSF), another autonomous institution of DST encourages and supports grassroots innovations developed by individuals and local communities in any technological field.
  • NSF has invited citizens to come up with creative and innovative ideas through its ‘Challenge COVID-19 Competition (C3)’ for tackling the following issues: 

(a) healthy food for nutrition and boosting immunity; 

(b) reducing transmission of coronavirus; 

(c) sanitising one's hands, body, home items and home, public places wherever required; 

(d) supply and distribution of essential items to people, especially the elderly living alone; 

(e) gainful engagement of people at home; 

(f) PPEs and rapid diagnostic testing facilities for capacity building of healthcare; and 

(g) rethinking "contactless" devices.

Synergizing S&T efforts:

  • ‘COVID-19 Task Force’ :It is created for mapping the COVID-19 related technology capabilities in start-ups, academia, research and development labs and industry.
    • This Task Force has identified over 500 entities in the areas of diagnostics, drugs, ventilators, protection gear, disinfecting systems, etc.
  • The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a sister department of DST, have also announced COVID-19 Research Consortium Program.
  • They are seeking proposals from industry, academia, industry-academia partnership with a focus on affordable diagnostics, vaccines, novel therapeutics, repurposing of drugs or any other intervention for control of COVID-19.
  • CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) has developed a paper strip-based testing assay. This testing assay can detect the viral RNA of the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov-2 within an hour.

S&T at private labs

  • A Pune-based molecular diagnostics company, Mylab Discovery Solutions, has developed the first COVID-19 rapid testing kit in India. 
  • Pune-based Science and Technology Park (STP or Scitech Park) has come up with an innovative anti-COVID-19 solution through a product called ‘Scitech Airon’ under the ‘Nidhi Prayas’ programme of DST. 
    • This machine has the potential to reduce the viral load within a room by 99.7 percent (based on room size).

The government scientific agencies are not leaving any stones unturned in order to provide full support to the community, researchers, private and public research labs, start-ups, incubators, entrepreneurs and industries.