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The IITs are stepping up to help India battle coronavirus

Outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Kolkata
Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Filling the gaps.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

India’s hospitals are deprived of adequate resources to deal with a rapidly increasing number of Covid-19 cases. And trying to bridge this gap are the country’s top technology institutes.

Students and faculty at the many Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) have joined the fight against coronavirus as the number of positive cases in the country surpassed 1,900 and the death toll, 50.

Some are producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers who have been forced to the frontlines with raincoats and helmets in the absence of proper protective gear. Up to 90 tonnes of PPE have been shipped to Serbia from India.

Meanwhile, others are developing low-cost ventilators, which is in short supply. The nation has only 30,000-50,000 ventilators which are “wholly inadequate,” according to the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP). Buying 10,000 units from China is not nearly enough. “We will need upwards of 700,000 and up to a million ventilators to address the peak (demand),” the health research organisation said.

Cheaper Covid-19 testing kits, alcohol-based sanitisers, and other solutions, small and big, are also in the works.

With a bunch of prototypes ready, these institutes are seeking the government’s help to tie up with public sector undertakings for large-scale manufacturing.

Seeking protection on auto mode

The safety of health professionals is on top of most researchers’ mind.

IIT-Guwahati’s chemistry and bioscience & bioengineering departments are together developing prototypes of waterproof protective gear that come with an antiviral coating. Additionally, design experts at the institute have created a 3D-printed prototype of a full-face shield, including headgear, whose manufacturing, they say, can be scaled up immediately.

“Our idea is to make this a state-of-the-art facility for the entire northeast region,” IIT-Guwahati director, TG Sitharam, told The Economic Times newspaper. “This centre, in future, would help develop highly competent manpower for diagnosis of different infectious diseases in the early stage of infection and thus their prevention too.”

A startup incubated at IIT-Delhi has, in the meantime, developed the capacity to produce 100,000 N95 masks a day, but it needs permission to keep production running during the lockdown.

One solution to lighten the load on the overburdened medical system is to curb health workers’ exposure to patients altogether. IIT-Guwahati, for instance, is making robotic units that can screen potential patients and deliver medicines and food in isolation wards.

Students at the institute have also created drones that can be used to spray disinfectants and undertake surveillance without involving humans. They already have seven models of the drone with capacities between 10 litres and 25 litres, and they could make 50 by April-end, one of the student innovators told ThePrint.

Besides medical professionals, patients, too, are in need of some rapid innovations.

Bringing order to patient chaos

With merely 6.8 tests done per million population, which is among the world’s lowest, the Narendra Modi government has come under fire for gross under-testing.

A shortage of kits is a big concern. Researchers at IIT-Delhi have now developed a testing kit which they claim is cheaper and is currently undergoing clinical trials at the Pune-based National Institute of Virology. Although its price isn’t public yet, the government has capped prices at Rs4,500 ($59) for now.

Meanwhile, IIT-Guwahati has provided life-saving equipment to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital in Assam, including two real-time polymerase chain reaction machines used to analyse DNA samples for Covid-19 diagnosis. The machines can analyse up to 2,000 samples in 24 hours. The institute is also working on making handheld temperature measuring units, ICU beds, ventilators, medical waste disposal for isolation wards, disinfection showers, hand sanitisers, and preventive masks.

Severe cases of Covid-19 infection cause or exacerbate respiratory problems.

With few ventilators—most of them already being used for critical care patients—the situation can quickly take an alarming turn. That’s why IIT-Hyderabad director BS Murty proposed that the government consider the existing “bag valve masks” as an inexpensive, easier-to-make option. These are self-inflatable devices used to deliver breathing support in emergency situations. These cost a mere Rs5,000 compared to the Rs40 lakh for each conventional ventilator.

Since the devices are handheld, they cannot be a permanent replacement for ventilators. However, “it would be easy to design a similar device powered by an electrical source, which could be a car battery, apart from the conventional power supply,” professors at the university told Mumbai Mirror. “It could be made portable, and, therefore, adopted in villages and other areas without a power supply and be inexpensive enough to manufacture in bulk.”

Stopping the spread

At the Guwahati and Kanpur IIT campuses, researchers are working on vaccines as well.

Three faculty members of IIT-Kanpur’s biosciences department have already “managed to isolate the RNA extract of the virus,” deputy director Manindra Agrawal told The Indian Express on April 1. “They are in the process of sourcing a similar extract from IIT-Indore. We are hopeful of developing a possible vaccine in the next couple of months, which can then be tested in a clinical trial.”

In the meantime, basic hygiene is in focus. As sanitiser supplies run out, these institutions are making their own.

IIT-Roorkee manufactured over 150 litres of a herbal hand sanitiser that is now being distributed free on the campus. “It is imperative to maintain basic hygiene practices since there is no specific treatment or vaccine for the disease,” said Siddharth Sharma, a research scholar at IIT Roorkee’s centre of nanotechnology, who helped prepare the product.

Researchers at the IIT Kharagpur campus have also come up with two different alcohol-based hand sanitisers. The Ropar, Hyderabad, and Madras campuses, too, have begun producing their own.

Moreover, as India buckles up for stage 3, the community transmission period, of the pandemic, monitoring suspected cases and curtailing the spread is going to get trickier.

At IIT-Bombay, students and alumni have developed a mobile app called Corontine. It is based on geo-fencing, alerting the authorities if a carrier moves out of a quarantine zone. The app can generate alerts such as text messages and emails if the user moves out of the designated area. It also notifies authorities if a device is transmitting the same coordinates for too long so a call can be made to check the whereabouts of the person.

In Punjab, students at the IIT-Ropar campus, together with other engineers, came up with an app to warn users about suspected or confirmed Covid-19 carriers within two or three feet of them, as long as the other person has registered on the app, too. Ideally, it would also make it easier to trace who is coming in contact with whom.

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