India has handled covid better than many developed nations
With ramped up testing we are able to track the infections early, which is why we have low death rate and high recovery rate
The rapid spread of coronavirus and the mounting fatalities has spurred research worldwide to contain the deadly disease. India, which has breached the one million mark in cases and 25,000 in deaths, is also investing heavily in covid-19 research and exploring ways of using science and technology to fight the contagion. Ashutosh Sharma, secretary at ministry of science and technology, spoke about the covid-19 pandemic, the government’s multipronged approach to deal with the health crisis, mathematical models, the role of science and technology in the government’s ambitious “Atmanirbhar Bharat" or self-reliant India campaign, and the way forward. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The covid-19 pandemic is evolving continuously. What is the situation in India, where the number of cases has crossed 1 million and deaths have crossed 25,000?
Covid-19, which is caused by SARS CoV-2 virus, is a multidimensional problem. Little is known about the behaviour of this virus and its transmission. The world over, communities are still researching it. While there is now partial clarity about the pathways of its transmission, its impact on different organs, persistence of antibodies generated by the body against the virus, its virulence and mutations over time remain important questions. Projects are being supported to study all this. The department of science and technology (DST) opened multiple fronts to combat covid-19. We are strengthening basic research in pathways of transmission of the virus, its mechanisms of action, repurposing of the drugs and the search for vaccines. We do have challenges. We have more densely populated cities, which helps the spread of infection.
However, considering its large population, India has indeed managed the covid-19 situation with a mix of strategies better than even many developed countries. We are into a new normal as we cannot shut down our livelihood options. Gradually, we have ramped up testing, which is one of the reasons we are getting more cases. With more testing, we are able to catch infections early and treat those infected, which is why we have a low death rate and a high recovery rate. We should not look at the absolute numbers, which are proportional to population, but at indicators such as the percentages of infected and recovered populations, doubling time, severity of cases and fatalities, and others, which provide a holistic picture of the effective interventions required.
What is the ministry of science and technology doing to address the research and development, and innovation-related challenges arising out of the pandemic?
We have expedited and simplified the processes to help the country’s fight against the covid-19 pandemic. In addition to basic science projects, a mapping of startups that were ready with relevant products and technologies for covid-19 was done. More than 60 startups were selected to receive seed funding to speedily develop their products and commercialize them. The basket of products includes ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPEs), masks, disinfecting systems, diagnostics, and a vaccine company. Similarly, industries that had demonstrated indigenous products were supported in scaling up to required quantities.
About 30 mid-sized NGOs have been empowered to disseminate critical information on covid-19. The latest developments on covid-19 are being propagated through a 10-20 minute bulletin every day for past three months. These are placed on an internet-based TV channel, “India Science". An interactive booklet called “Covid Katha" has also been published in several languages, which even children can understand.
How reliable are the mathematical models for covid-19 protection that your ministry is working on and can they help fight coronavirus?
Mathematical models and simulations are of vital importance in predicting the course of a disease and its possible impact on resources. Models can be of immense use in planning and decision making. At our ministry, a super group of more than 10 modelling sub-groups in the country was created to cooperatively evolve a supermodel that is robust and enjoys the trust of a large number of scientists working in this area.
The first version of our supermodel is expected to be put up for scrutiny in 15 days. The models are constantly updated with the latest data, practices and policies on local zoning and distancing measures. Modeling of pandemics serves much the same purpose as war games. Models can be used to fine-tune our strategies and for chalking out optimal paths. While models are not always robust in predicting absolute numbers, they can predict the relative impact and effectiveness of different interventions, such as relaxation of lockdowns in certain areas with certain density of patients or population. The impact of interventions is best judged in trends and percentages, rather than in absolute numbers.
How can artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) be used in bringing diagnostic solutions for covid-19?
Another group under this ministry is creating improved, and inexpensive methods of covid-19 diagnosis using AI and ML, which can also be applied along with telemedicine. AI is also being used to hunt for repurposed drugs.
Repurposing existing infrastructure is another creative method to fight covid-19. One such example is the use of RT-PCR machines that were previously meant for research in other areas. The Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleo-Sciences in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, which has the capacity to study fossilized DNA, is now repurposed to conduct 500 covid tests every day. We are also researching the lifestyles related to boosting of immunity, strengthening lungs, and stress reduction, all of which are relevant to covid-19.
A new programme is scientifically exploring the yoga and meditation practices that may help in these directions. It is also important to understand the problems that people at large face and their possible solutions by reaching out to a large number of people in smaller towns and villages. The National Innovation Foundation in Ahmedabad has been engaged in one such exercise.
How are you ensuring that scientifically made innovative products and technologies can easily penetrate the market?
It is vital that the products and technologies that are evolving should have market access in the time of the pandemic. There have been several government initiatives in this direction. One is the preference for Indian companies where global tenders need not be placed for orders of less than ₹200 crore. Several other initiatives to help market access of startups and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have also been put in place by the government.
We have to learn, remember, and implement several key lessons while going forward to develop global-quality products with speed and scale. There is a reworking of the processes of support by various ministries to bring in ease of doing business and by cooperation between different stakeholders from the beginning.
Academia, research and development laboratories, industry and startups working together with a shared, clear and present purpose provides an early direction. This produces a seamless pipeline from basic and applied research and development to design to prototype to startups, industry and society. The key in all of this is an effective matching of knowledge producing systems with knowledge consumption systems.
The pandemic has stretched our healthcare system beyond capacities and the country is striving to improve on health infrastructure. Your take?
Despite all constraints, India is working on becoming atma nirbhar (self-sufficient) by engaging, leveraging, and building on our strengths, which are substantial.
Several varieties of innovative ventilators were produced within two months, which were earlier imported at twice the cost or more. Such examples can be found in the entire system from diagnostics to disinfectants, masks to PPEs.
Laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Indian Council of Medical Research, the department of biotechnology, the department of science and technology, and the Indian Institutes of Technology have produced many technology products and solutions within a short time by the power of cooperation and purpose. I am sure that these successes will also be replicated in our ongoing hunt for vaccines and repurposed drugs. For vaccines, our scientists are working extraordinarily hard to shrink the usual timelines.
All of these lessons for speedy development of relevant technologies will help our industry not only regain but do better than their pre-covid performances.