Published: 28th May 2020
HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal: Encourage India's institutions to take research further to turn COVID crisis into an opportunity
From the IITs to the smallest institutions, almost everyone has innovated in some way to help the fight against COVID. This is why we need to foster research and use it indigenously for development
COVID-19 is reshaping our world. The World Health Organization has labelled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Governments across the globe have come out with a swath of new measures amid the Coronavirus scare because at the time of writing this article, more than 5 million people have been affected by this virus. Around 200 countries are struggling to fight this. This unprecedented outbreak has filled hospitals and disrupted modern society.
What makes this crisis so tricky is the fact that people have to do nothing. Social distancing is the new norm. Considering the severe human impact of COVID -19, we have to isolate ourselves to defeat the enemy. Somehow, a mechanism is needed so that we can create togetherness without actually being together.
Amidst a rising fear that the Coronavirus infection enters the community transmission stage, the education sector has witnessed a significant disruption globally. Educational institutes across the nation have started several initiatives to confront this challenge. It's encouraging to see that educational institutions across the country are playing a decisive role in the battle against COVID-19. Since the announcement of the first 21-day complete lockdown by our Prime Minister, many Universities have shifted to online instruction so that students do not suffer. Responding to such substantial disruption, more and more educational institutions across the country are joining this online initiative — which could well be one of the world's most massive remote learning experiments.
Most research labs have remained active during this time of crisis. We are trying to develop various technologies indigenously, which come at a higher price when imported. These measures will result in strengthening the economy of India. The concept majorly focuses on the manufacturing growth in the country, which requires adequate technology along with a skilled workforce.
Focussing on collaborative research, institutions and universities are contributing to the public good. As one of the largest education systems in the world with more than 340 million students and 10 million teachers, we have a huge responsibility to ensure the smooth and safe running of our institutions. The best part is that the entire education sector in the country is working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts. As a part of a joint project, the Chemistry Department, along with and the Bioscience and Bioengineering departments at IIT Guwahati, are developing prototypes of waterproof protective gear that comes with an antiviral coating. Besides, experts have created a 3D-printed prototype of a full-face shield, including headgear, with a possibility of scaled-up manufacturing.
To meet the enormous demand for sanitisers in the country, IIT Kharagpur has developed two different alcohol-based hand sanitisers based on WHO guidelines. Numerous other universities and institutions are preparing sanitisers to meet the huge demand. While researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, have come up with a new ventilator design. This has the potential for large-scale manufacturing at multiple sites. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, have developed a method to detect COVID-19, which can significantly reduce the cost of the test making it affordable for a larger section of people. Situated near Chandigarh, IIT Ropar has developed a design of a Negative Pressure Room (NPR) to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 through the air at isolation wards and testing labs. This technology will help protect our most vulnerable medical staff from infection. As a part of a collaborative initiative, students from prestigious educational institutions — IITs, NITs, and IIMs — have come together and launched an initiative called Sahyog to help stranded workers, migrants and the homeless amid the strict measures to restrict movement. As a part of another collaborative project, AIIMS Patna and IIT Patna are identifying potential drug targets in the structural proteins of SARS-Cov-2.
Our educational and research institutions do realise the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in an unprecedented lockdown, and the country badly needs an abundant supply of essential commodities. We need COVID-19 testing kits, masks, alcohol-based sanitisers, personal protective equipment (PPEs), dress materials not only for the patients but also for frontline health workers. The challenge is to produce these as quickly as possible and in bulk. This situation prompted the Government of India to vigorously activate the Make in India Programme and involved various Research and Development institutions of the country. Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore is working on several projects ranging from 3D printed valves for split use of ventilators to a recombinant subunit vaccine for SARS-CoV-2.
Researchers at the institute are also working on developing a UV-based disinfectant device along with mobile diagnostic testing laboratory. IIT Palakkad is attempting to make indigenously designed masks and filters. The filters contain layers of non-woven PP (polypropylene) materials and textile material coated with known antiviral nanomaterial. To prevent community spread, surveillance of Coronavirus suspects is essential. It's heartening to note that IIT Roorkee has developed a mobile tracking application endowed with state-of-the-art features to locate corona suspects. IIT Roorkee and AIIMS Rishikesh have teamed up to form a low-cost portable ventilator called Prana-Vayu that can be useful for COVID-19 patients. NIT Calicut has developed a low-cost, non-invasive emergency ventilator with an exhale disinfector. The Madras Medical College in Chennai along with a deemed university, is working on 100 3D printed splits to be used in ventilators for COVID-19 patients.
I am sure that these initiatives launched by our educational institutions will draw more investments and power the Indian growth story. This research will not only further the manufacturing capabilities of our country but help in creating fertile ground for businesses to thrive in India. I sincerely believe higher education is a catalyst for economic growth, as it ensures the strategically competitive technological advances in addition to skilled human resources. High-level skills and technological advances provide production improvement, thus leading to a flourishing economy. As much as we brace to face the worst, we must encourage research initiatives of our institutions, which gives us the capability of turning this crisis into an opportunity. It is highly encouraging that almost every week a new solution is being put out by our research institutions in this fight against COVID. The best part is that our start-ups, our students, researchers and faculty are at the forefront with their strategically competitive skills.
Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' is the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, Government of India