Indian researchers spring to COVID-19 innovation

In the wake of the global pandemic of the Coronavirus disease (COVID 19), research institutions and laboratories across India have emerged with leading solutions to tackle the diverse implications of the health crisis

April 18, 2020

The Central Drug Research Institute has inked an MoU with King George’s Medical University to sequence the virus strains obtained from COVID-19 patients

Seagull BioSolutions, funded by the Department of Science and Technology, is developing Active Virosome (AV)-Vaccine and Immunodiagnostic kits for COVID-19

Three separate institutes under CSIR are working on the whole-genome sequencing of novel coronavirus to determine the complete DNA sequence of the genome

SCTIMST has obtained the nod from ICMR for “convalescent-plasma therapy” to find a cure for the Coronavirus from antibody harvested from a recovered patient

In the wake of the global pandemic of the Coronavirus disease (COVID 19), research institutions and laboratories across India have emerged with leading solutions to tackle the diverse implications of the health crisis. Several institutions under the aegis of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) have launched their innovations covering the areas of healthcare to sanitation and beyond that have already been put to use by local administrations. These solutions are helping arrest the spread of the disease, ensuring a quicker return to normalcy.

The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has claimed more than 145,500 lives between December 2019 and mid-April 2020 while around 2.2 million people have contracted the disease in over 180 countries. To effectively contain the spread of the disease, leading economies around the world have enforced a lockdown spanning weeks up till May 3. This is a crucial measure as many hotspots of the disease are yet to reach their peak while a cure is believed to be 12-18 months away. Herein, key innovations by Indian institutions are providing much-needed help. 

India’s COVID-19 R&D activities span across vaccines, testing kits, genome sequencing, plasma therapy, drug therapeutics, PPEs, and medical devices, among others.

Here are some of the leading innovations related to tackling the COVID-19 crisis from across India:

Drug research

The Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) has inked an MoU with King George’s Medical University to sequence the virus strains obtained from COVID-19 patients. Initially, the lab will sequence the virus strains from the samples of a few patients. This activity will be taken up under the first vertical ‘digital and molecular surveillance.’ As of now, eight different variants of the virus are known to be causing the COVID-19 infection. 

Therapeutics or repurposing of drugs to fight against COVID-19 is the second vertical where CDRI is getting involved. Meanwhile, the institution has a diverse library of molecules that have been screened using silico approaches against a panel of drug targets from SARS-CoV-2 under the third vertical, ‘target-based screening systems.’

COVID-19 vaccine

Seagull BioSolutions, funded by DST, is developing Active Virosome (AV)-Vaccine and Immunodiagnostic kits for the COVID-19 emergency. Active Virosome Technology (AVT) developed by Seagull Bio is useful for producing novel, non-hazardous & economical Active Virosome agents expressing desired antigens from the target pathogen. These will be used to develop a novel vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19 infection and also immunodiagnostic ELISA kits for COVID-19.

Genome sequencing

Three institutes of CSIR — Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTech) are working on the whole-genome sequencing of novel coronavirus to determine the complete DNA sequence of the genome. This will help explain the evolution of the virus, how dynamic it is and how fast it imitates. This study will show how fast the virus evolves and what are the future aspects of the disease. 

Plasma therapy

SCTIMST has obtained a go-ahead for “convalescent-plasma therapy” to find a cure for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) disease. The treatment aims to use the immunity gained by a recovered person to treat a sick person. Indian council for medical research (ICMR) the top authorising body in India has given approval to the SCTIMST for carrying out the novel treatment. The therapy, like blood transfusion, harvests the antibody from a recovered patient and ingest into a sick person. 

Coronavirus testing kit 

FastSense Diagnostics, a DST-funded startup incorporated in 2018, is now developing two modules for the detection of COVID 19. In the lines of their existing platform “Omni-Sens” for early detection of complex diseases like cancer, the company has proposed a technology, CovE-Sens, for COVID 19. The company plans to roll out two products — a modified Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based rapid detection kit and portable chip-based technology for rapid screening of the target population.

PPEs for Coronavirus 

The Central Electrochemical Research Institute (CSIR-CECRI) has prepared a series of lab-made personal protective equipment (PPEs) that include Hand sanitizer solutions, as per the WHO recommendations, hand wash and disinfectant solutions. So far, 350 litres of hand sanitizers, 250 Litres of hand wash solutions and 1,000 Litres of hypo-disinfectants have been distributed to needy organizations free of cost. CSIR-CECRI is also helping with the production of face masks and 3D printed face shields.

Mathematical model for COVID-19

A team of researchers from Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), an autonomous institute DST, along with IISc Bengaluru have developed a heuristic predictive model for COVID-19 that provides short-term predictions about the evolution of the disease and the medical needs that are generated as a consequence. The model focuses on the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of COVID-19 response – medical inventory management.

Hand-held UV-C device

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been developing several solutions for the Coronavirus pandemic. Its latest innovations include an automatic mist based sanitiser dispensing unit based on water mist aerator technology. The institute has also developed an Ultraviolet C light-based sanitisation box and handheld UV-C (ultraviolet light with wavelength 254 nanometres) device. The UV-C consists of a shorter, more energetic wavelength of light – good at destroying COVID-19 substances.  

Nasal gel to counter virus

The Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering, IIT Bombay, has been working on an innovation to capture and inactivate the causative agent of COVID-19. Backed by DST, the department has developed a gel that can be applied to the nasal passage, which is a major entry point of the Coronavirus. This solution is not only expected to protect the safety of health workers but can lead to a reduction in community transmission of COVID-19, thereby helping disease management.

Respiratory solution

Genrich Membranes, a spin-off company based on proprietary technology licensed from CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), is being funded by DST to scale up membrane oxygenator equipment (MOE) that it has developed to treat COVID-19 patients. Based on indigenous technology, the MOE enriches oxygen in the air by up to 35% under pressure (4-7 bar, using oil-free compressor). Medical grade oxygen-enriched air is needed in inpatient care settings involving respiratory disorders, such as COVID-19.

Digital thermometer

CSIR-NCL’s Venture Centre’s incubatee BMEK has developed a handheld digital IR thermometer which is an important component of measures to mitigate Coronavirus outbreak. The hardware and software design of the IR thermometer is available on open source for manufacturers across India for free. Also, oxygen enrichment units (OEUs) to increase the oxygen concentration from the ambient air of 21-22% to 38-40% have been developed by CSIR-NCL and Genrich Membranes.  

Protective coverall suit

CSIR-National Aerospace Laboratories (CSIR-NAL), along with MAF Clothing Pvt Ltd, has developed and certified an overall protective coverall suit. The polypropylene spun laminated multi-layered non-woven fabric based coverall can be used to ensure the safety of doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and health care workers working round the clock on COVID-19 mitigation. CSIR-NAL and MAF have plans to augment the production capacity to about 30,000 units per day within four weeks. 

Disinfection Gateway 

SCTIMST has designed two technologies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. First is Chitra Disinfection Gateway for the decontamination of people. It is a portable system equipped with a system for generating hydrogen peroxide mist and UV based decontamination. The second product is Chitra UV Based Facemask Disposal Bin that can be used by health workers in hospitals and in public places where decontamination of used facemask, overhead covers, face shields, and so on are required to break the infection chain.

Fluid collection tool 

Scientists at SCTIMST have developed a highly efficient superabsorbent material titled Chitra Acrylosorb Secretion Solidification System for liquid respiratory and other body fluid solidification and disinfection for the safe management of infected respiratory secretions. A super-absorbent gel with embedded disinfecting material is key to the safe collection, consolidation, and quarantine of secretions before their incineration. This is especially vital in the case of a highly infectious disease like Coronavirus. 

3D printed tools

The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research – Guwahati (NIPER-G) has designed two products to help tackle COVID-19 infection. The first is a 3D-printed hands-free object that could be used to help open doors, press buttons, etc, minimising contact. The second is a 3D-printed antimicrobial face-shield to control the spread of novel coronavirus. It was designed after a thorough study to understand how viruses spread through oral, ophthalmic, olfactory and other body cavities. 

India, with a population of over 1.3billion, has reported more than 13,400 Coronavirus cases and around 450 deaths up till mid-April 2020. The Government of India has implemented a nation-wide lockdown from March 25 to contain the spread of the disease, a necessary move that will have an unavoidable impact on the economy. However, while the world slips into a recession due to the pandemic, India is expected to come out as an exception, as per the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Another report, by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), has pegged India’s growth at 4.8% in 2020. Meanwhile, the World Bank expects India to grow by up to 2.8%, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has projected India’s growth to be 1.9% in 2020.