How innovations in India are helping to combat COVID-19

Ever since India reported its first case of COVID-19 in the last week of January 2020, researchers in India have been focussing on the evolution of the fast-spreading disease, its diagnostics and vaccine development. Entrepreneurs and innovators across India have responded quickly and a host of new innovations have appeared in the last year. India has a wealth of trained scientists and engineering talent and has fostered what’s called jugaad – a frugal innovation mindset that finds local solutions with limited resources.

Testing and isolating the COVID affected people is the first step. Towards this, the biotechnology company My Lab in Pune brought out their timely, cost effective RT-PCR based COVID-19 testing kit in March, 2020. Validated by the Drug controller of India and the National Institute of Virology it has the advantage of short 120 minutes test-report compared with the conventional ones. Following this, many other Indian science and technology organizations came up with rapid antigen testing kits. 

Results in 45 minutes

As a faster alternative to RT-PCR test kit, CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) brought out a cost effective, rapid and simple COVID-19 test that changes colour on detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The test named Feluda, is priced at an affordable Rs 500 (5 to 6 Euros) and can deliver result in 45 minutes. It is able to differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from other coronaviruses even if genetic variations between them are minute. In addition to this, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has so far approved 145 RT-PCR test kits out of which a third are from Indian companies and 16 Rapid Test kits out of which nine are Indian.

Most research and development (R&D) organizations and institutes across India have an incubator division supporting many start-ups. These start-ups have played a crucial role in developing new products for fighting COVID-19. This is shown by the example of the cooperation between the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, with Muskan Packagers (industry partners). 

Costs of less than one Euro

They partnered as a result of an acute shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) worldwide. They developed (Polyethylene-based Improvised Protective Equipment under Scarcity (PIPES)) made from Polyethylene (usually used in plastic bags) which is cheap and abundant. These PPEs cost less than Rs.100/- (less than one Euro) and a single small factory can produce about 10,000 PPEs per day.

Two other very useful products that have resulted from the Incubator at IIT Kanpur are, firstly, a ventilator for intensive care units and a machine that can provide respiratory support to spontaneously breathing patients by delivering high flow warmed and humidified gases through a nasal interface. Secondly, a cost effective and efficient N95 mask by ESPIN Nanotech arose through the incubator at IIT Kanpur.

In response to the shortage of ventilators for critical care, also start-ups such as Nocca Robotics (incubated at (IIT)-Kanpur), Aerobiosys Innovations (IIT Hyderabad) and AgVa Healthcare are developing low-cost, easy-to-use, and portable ventilators that can be deployed even in rural areas of India.

Another example for an innovation in combating COVID-19 comes from Helyxon, a healthcare start-up based out of the IIT Madras Research Park. It developed and deployed remote patient monitoring solutions for COVID-19 in collaboration with researchers in IIT and offered solution to clinically monitor continuously four critical parameters – temperature, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate and heart rate.

At IIT Madras another incubated start-up – Modulus Housing – developed a portable hospital unit that can be installed anywhere within two hours by four people. Called Medi CAB, it is a decentralised approach to detect, screen, identify, isolate and treat Covid-19 patients in their local communities through these portable micro-structures. It is foldable and is composed of four zones – a doctor's room, an isolation room, a medical room/ward and a twin-bed ICU, maintained at negative pressure.

Gavi – a global alliance for vaccines

In the fight against COVID-19, Indian companies also play a very important role in the development of vaccines. India has at least six well established vaccine makers. In an effort to fight COVID-19, at least 30 different vaccines have been designed and are under various clinical trials. Of the vaccine makers, the Serum Institute of India has the largest capacity to manufacture vaccines and works with Gavi, a global alliance for vaccines that aims to improve access to vaccinations in developing countries. Currently more than 60 percent of all Gavi-procured vaccines are manufactured in India. In addition, anti-COVID drugs are being developed in India.

All in all, this report is a modest effort to touch upon a few of the innovations and R&D efforts that have gone on in combating COVID-19 in India. Many more cost effective, easily available solutions in the market that India has been trying to find with its “local solutions to a global problem approach” could be listed here. It will be interesting to see what other innovations we will see in the future.

Author: Aruna Dhathathreyan

Contributions by external authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

Who is Aruna Dhathathreyan?

Aruna Dhathathreyan is a Professor and Emeritus scientist at CSIR – Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, India. Her fields of work and research include biophysics, biophysical chemistry, and surface sciences. She received an INSA-DFG Visiting Fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (2010).

She was among 98 scientists featured in Leelavathi's Daughters, a compendium of female scientists in India created by the Indian Science Academy.

Her first stay in Germany was in 1983 at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen. Later she worked at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research in 1996 and had collaboration with further stays in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Aruna Dhathathreyan is a mentor on the Alumniportal Deutschland and publishes articles about her time in Germany regularly.

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June 2021

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