The 21-day lockdown is likely to only delay largescale transmission of novel coronavirus in India, not eliminate it completely, most experts say. This time, therefore, needs to be utilised to build up defences, ramp up health infrastructure, and prepare for the worst case scenario. In fact, this exercise is already on.
Ashutosh Sharma is Secretary, Department of Science and Technology. He spoke to The Indian Express. Excerpts:
How is the scientific community gearing up to meet the COVID-19 challenge?
This battle against the spread is being fought at multiple levels. From our side, we are trying to find solutions that can broadly be put in three categories — science, technology and information technology. On the science side, we are making efforts towards development of cheaper test kits, for example, and there are efforts towards vaccine development and repurposing of drugs. On the technology side, we are looking at products that are needed by the patients or healthcare professionals. And there is a third stream as well, where we need to come up with effective information-based products on this disease.
So, what are the things that need to be delivered urgently?
Let me start with technology. The Technology Development Board recently made a call for proposals from SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and start-ups for products that will be useful in the current situation. There can be a range of such products. I will give one example. If the numbers (of infected persons) become very high, there is likely to be a rush for finding ventilators. Now, one company has proposed a product that is like a splitter. It will enable more than one patient to simultaneously use a ventilator.
I would also be interested in seeing whether alternative models for ventilators can be developed that are simpler to operate. Such equipment might be needed to be installed in large common facilities, for example, if the number of infected patients really blows up. Similarly, we have need for blood oxygen monitors. These are available in the market but are expensive. If some company can produce it at a cheaper rate, it could be very useful.
So we have made a call-out to companies, saying if you have products that are close to manufacturing, and they would be useful in the current situation, we (government) are ready to support it. In fact, we have already found close to 60 start-ups that have useful products in advanced stages of development.
What is being done on the science side?
On the science side too, a call has been made through the Science and Engineering Research Board, asking for research proposals on COVID-19. We will begin screening of these proposals from March 30, though the proposals can keep coming even after that. Here again, we are expecting to see some very specific outputs. One example could be development of inexpensive test kits. Now, some private companies have already been approved to do this, but there is a need for scaling up. We are looking at test kits that are priced below Rs 500.
Then, all efforts that will contribute towards vaccine development would be supported and put on the fast track. The same would be the case with groups working on developing therapy, or on repurposing of existing drugs. In fact, one group in Bengaluru has done some encouraging work on repurposing of drugs for this disease, in combination with a private company with expertise on artificial intelligence. Similarly, limited clinical trials on drugs that are approved elsewhere will be funded and fast-tracked.
While we are seeking proposals, we are, in parallel, also mapping who is doing what, and we will reach out to them.
What kind of help can information technology offer?
There are many needs. Just as an example, we need someone to develop information dashboards for Indian context, say by, integrating data about where the concentration of infected people are. Then, a lot of useful websites and apps, chatbots, can be developed.
How big is the risk of the disease spreading among very large populations?
All possible measures are being taken to contain the spread, but you also have to remain prepared for every eventuality. That is why we are working across different streams to bring ourselves in a situation where we can respond quickly and effectively to any eventuality.
What does one make of mathematical models that predict millions in India can get infected?
These mathematical models work on a number of assumptions. Most of these are based on robust science. Also, they adjust dynamically, and are sensitive to lots of parameters. For example, behaviour of people can be a critical input. Whether people can be persuaded to do a certain thing in a particular way rather than the other way is something that will alter the calculations. These things would need to be captured in the models. The impacts that government measures would have — isolation, social distancing — would also affect the model output. In fact, we are hoping to see some good research proposals on modelling as well. We would support them.
How much money has been allocated for supporting such science and technology initiatives?
As an emergency measure, we have kept aside Rs 100 crore. By the time this gets exhausted, we will be in the next financial year and look for more. It all depends on the absorption capacity of the industry and scientific groups. If we get good proposals, funding would not be a problem.
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