This interview article delves into the innovative approaches and strategies adopted by four scientists from the Indian Institute of Science in their remarkable contributions towards mitigating the impact of COVID-19. It also highlights the broader collaborative efforts of academic institutions in battling the pandemic, as discussed in an event conducted by DST-Centre for Policy Research at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, on Feb 18, 2023.
The interview features four scientists from the Indian Institute of Science: Anand M.S., Senior Research Scientist, Centre for Sustainable Technologies; Utpal Tatu, Professor and Chair, Department of Biochemistry; Rahul Roy, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering; and Sushobhan Avasthi, Associate Professor, Centre for Nano Science and Engineering. These are just a few examples of the many instances where scientists in our academic institutions joined hands with each other and with the society to bolster the fight against the pandemic.
1) Please explain to us briefly about your COVID-19 innovation and how you went about working on the same.
Anand MS: During the COVID-19 pandemic, my team and I developed and deployed a medical oxygen generator. At the combustion gasification and propulsion laboratory, where I work, we deal with a lot of combustible gases. We take biomass, woody biomass, agricultural residues, etc., from which we generate a mixture of gases called synthetic gas. We then separate these gases into specific mixtures or individual species. We’ve achieved a fair degree of success in generating ultra-high pure hydrogen, which many are interested in today.
[During the COVID-19 pandemic], we started planning for developing a separation system that works at low pressures because commercially available systems work at high pressures of over 30 bars. In this context, we started developing some technology that would work in our atmospheric conditions. We extrapolated our understanding of the technology that was developed for a different purpose [of hydrogen separation] into this oxygen separation system. So, we designed the process remotely, connecting with different suppliers at different levels to procure compressors, vessel developers, bed material, walls, etc.
Some of us managed to get some curfew passes from the Institute and the police, and came to the Institute to perform some critical experiments, to establish the proof of concept, for about 3 days. Based on these experiments, we designed a 50 litres per minute [Medical Oxygen Generator], which is sufficient for a 10-bed hospital.
Utpal Tatu: We worked on several aspects during the COVID-19 pandemic, two of which resulted in products: an RT-PCR kit and a rapid antigen test kit for COVID-19. We worked with the government, particularly the Health Minister of Karnataka and the Industry Commissioner’s office, to develop a strategy to support the reopening of industries in the state. We tied up with major companies to help them set up their in-house, ICMR-recognised testing facilities. We also provided our services in supporting the industries [in reopening establishments] and diagnostic centres in [setting up services] using our RT-PCR kit.
Rahul Roy: We developed the Sero-COV-ID test, which can measure the level of antibodies in your body that will tell you whether you have got an infection, prior infection, or if you have a certain level of antibody. The test gives you an indicator of whether you will be sufficiently protected after vaccination.
Sushobhan Avasthi: So, we began designing ventilators based on the concern that India would need ventilators during the early days of COVID-19, around March 2020. You must pardon our ignorance, but the first vision was to make a sort of a gas bank and a distribution network — a very industrial sort of thinking. So, we collaborated with a Bengaluru-based semiconductor gas component company, UHP Tech, who gave us some manpower. We got some seed funding from SID through DST’s NIDHI-PRAYAS program, and we started designing what would be the L0 version of the ventilator. It was nothing great; just a regulator, a few lines, few valves, and it inflated/deflated a balloon as per a set timing.
Then we started talking to hospitals. We got in touch with Dr. Justin, who works in the ICU at Manipal Hospital. He sensitised us to the intricacies of deploying a ventilator in a medical context. Soon, it became clear that our initial idea of an industrial distribution network probably wouldn’t work. So, we got in touch with the Anoop Varghese of Vasmed, an Indian arm of a medical company that makes cardiac stents. They sensitised us about the requirements for medical devices. Eventually, we developed a working system by around October 2020.
2) Did you take any efforts toward keeping your technology open source, and to what extent?
Anand MS: We demonstrated [the technology] in the lab and put together an 80-page document containing the engineering design, drawings, procedures, and the list of suppliers who could supply different components needed for a medical oxygen generator with the capacity of 50 litres per minute. We posted this on the institute’s website, and we also conducted 3 – 4 open seminars during the pandemic to disseminate this information to a broader audience. I believe some of these recordings are still floating around on the internet. Our open-source design was picked up and implemented by different companies. But we really don’t have track of all those people. For a plant with a capacity higher than this, we would provide them support for a nominal fee that would have to be paid to the institute. In this mode, we have licensed the technology to 5 – 6 companies.
Utpal Tatu: We developed the kit, obtained ICMR approval, and licensed the technology to a company that had a manufacturing facility instead of trying to create a facility for ourselves. But we also provided free [diagnostic] services in many panchayats of rural Karnataka during the early stages of the pandemic when testing facilities were not available.
Rahul Roy: Normally, if you have new science or product idea or innovation, you will definitely want to patent it if you really want to protect your intellectual property. But we decided not to patent the Sero-COV-ID test. We had two reasons for it: (i) we wanted to make the system as simple as possible, and build it on top of existing instrumentation and assays, because otherwise wide adaptation of this would have been very difficult; (ii) we didn’t want to restrict the availability of reagents required for the assay because of the patent. Otherwise, the IP would be restricted, and we would not be able to quickly distribute them across the country.
Moreover, the reagent that we ended up using was not developed by us. It turned out, the reagent that worked best was one developed in the US for a COVID vaccine, which they had freely given us – again an example of open innovation. We eventually licensed it to a company called NeoDX at a very nominal royalty of ~1% or something. I was going to give it away for free, but the IPTel office told me that if you give it away for free, the company would have no interest in driving it because they’re not paying for it. For me, I would have rather wanted to see the product than see the royalty.
Sushobhan Avasthi: After making the device, we handed off two licenses: one to Vasmed, because they were partnering with us all along and made investments; and another to Apollo. Vasmed has made a pilot production of around 15 units. They have supplied one to Manipal, one or two to Jayadeva Hospital in Bannerghatta Road, Bangalore, and one or two to the training centre at JSS, Mysuru.
3) Could you share any anecdotes of how the civil society aided in the use or deployment of your technology, and your thoughts on such engagement?
Anand MS: There was a Director of an institute – IIM Kozhikode, I think – who came to know about our technology and invested about 20,00,000 from his personal money and built a plant in a private hospital at Lucknow, St. Martha’s Hospital. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they drew oxygen from it and directly supplied it to patients. It continues to serve its purpose even today. We coordinated all of this from remote locations. Somebody was paying, someone else was invoicing, someone else was receiving the money, and the material was being shipped somewhere. It was a unique experience, but every individual at that point of time, I must say, came forward to support this initiative in the larger interest of society. That is something I’m very proud of about our society.
Rahul Roy: During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was heartening to see that we could achieve whatever we did because of the help we got from all the sectors. I would write an email and people would respond to me, saying, ‘yeah, we will send it to you,’ and they would literally send it to me as soon as they could. This happened multiple times. When we had to test our kit on samples, we quickly went to the hospitals – I would drive around the hospitals like Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute (BMCRI), where doctors who were donned in complete PPE, with masks and the whole-body suits, would come out and give me samples. I would then carry them back to the lab, where the students and I would run the test ourselves. We could do that only because people were willing to come forward.