CSIR’s role in COVID-19 crisis

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CSIR's programmes for COVID-19 prevention and management
(Credit: Vigneshwar Senthivel, CSIR/Wikimedia Commons)

CSIR has a chain of 38 labs across the country. Very early on, before the lockdown started, our strategy was defined as five verticals: surveillance and epidemiology, diagnostics, drugs and vaccines, hospital assistive equipment and supply chain logistics.

Surveillance: 

We have begun genome sequencing in many of our labs such as the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad; Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi, and Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), Chandigarh. The idea is that we span a large population across the country and address the question: Is the virus evolving rapidly or not? What kind of mutations are being accommodated? We are also integrating surveillance using serological methods, and that study is set to begin in Kolar.

Genome sequencing is very useful in many different ways. First, it will help us track how the virus is moving from place to place. Secondly, it helps with understanding what parts of the virus are evolving more rapidly than the others. If there is a drug that binds to a particular region of the virus, or a surface protein, and if that part is evolving more rapidly than other parts of the virus, it is possible that we may have drug resistance tomorrow. Therefore, our strategy for developing drugs would have to be drastically different. 

Diagnostics: 

More than a month and half ago, CSIR labs started doing RT-PCR based diagnosis. CCMB was one of the first. They have come up with some clever strategies for RNA isolation, quick testing and pooling. They also started training people in Telangana to scale up diagnosis very quickly. 

The standard RT-PCR test takes 2-3 hours, and has multiple steps. Two tests on the horizon are exciting: RT-LAMP, which is being developed by Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, Trivandrum, and the other is the ‘Feluda’ test of IGIB. Both tests are very quick, and can be done within 30 minutes. Both are very cheap ‒ with Feluda, we are targeting a price of about Rs. 300 per test. Both will be available to the public very soon. 

IGIB was able to come up with this idea of paper-based diagnosis for COVID-19 quickly. This is very similar to the pregnancy test. It has now been validated in our labs and gone for third party validation. Prominent biotech companies have lined up to commercialize the test as soon the regulatory authority gives permission. 

Drugs and vaccines: 

The evaluation of new drugs is a long process. It can take 10-12 years. So, most people including CSIR plunged into repurposing drugs straight away. The World Health Organization also came up with a candidate list of drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and remdesivir, under the solidarity trials. CSIR has generated synthesis processes for many of these drugs, as well as drugs such as arbidol and favipiravir. 

For vaccines, we took a conscious decision that we would be focusing on immune-boosting vaccines. We decided to work on an indigenously developed vaccine called Mycobacterium w (Mw), a heat-killed formulation. Cadila Pharmaceuticals has already shown that heat-killed Mw reduces mortality of sepsis patients by as much as 50 percent by simply boosting host immunity. Therefore, CSIR along with Cadila approached the Drug Controller General of India for clinical trials. We will carry out three kinds of trials: on those who are critically ill, those who are hospitalized but not yet in ICUs, and those at risk of developing the disease. We have roped in AIIMS Bhopal, AIIMS New Delhi and PGI-Chandigarh as partners. 

We also realized that India has a very rich traditional knowledge, and so we have tied up with the Ministry of AYUSH to test a number of immune-boosting cocktails. 

Hospital assistive equipment: 

We began work early on hospital assistive equipment. We foresaw shortages in things such as protective clothing, which at that time was being imported from abroad. We have received a large order from the Government of India, and we are ramping up our capacity. At the moment, our capacity is 30,000 suits per day, but we are ramping it up to make it a few lakh suits per day very soon. Similarly, we are planning for nasal swabs, masks, shields and so on. We are also working on a non-invasive type of ventilator, and have tied up with a large number of companies and PSUs to start manufacturing prototypes soon. 

Supply chain logistics: 

We foresaw that every corner of the country will face shortages, and people will not know where to source items from. For example, when we looked at the hydroxychloroquine supply chain logistics, we realized that the two components required are imported from China. Our strategy was focused on how to make them in India. 

We also expected a shortage in hospitals and isolation wards. The Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee and the Structural Engineering Research Centre in Chennai have designed an isolation ward that can be generated in 3-4 days. We reached out to the National Disaster Response Force, and they have given us a site where we are showing them a prototype 50-bed hospital.

Support mechanisms

In terms of bureaucracy and processes to be followed, because CSIR is an autonomous organization, on day one itself we told everyone that if there is anything related to the coronavirus, those things will be processed as an emergency. No process should stand in the way of getting materials. 

More than a month ago, we formed a CSIR Strategic Group with about eight people. This group has been meeting every day. We discuss all the five verticals, and strategize about where we need to emphasize. 

CSIR has a flagship programme called the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI). Under this, we launched a call inviting proposals for industry and academia to come together and provide solutions. We received some exciting proposals. The Mw clinical trials, for example, are being funded under this call, and we already have an international board which is going to monitor the progress. 

Every issue in all the five verticals has a corporate partner associated with it...through Corporate Social Responsibility funding, co-development or technology transfer to corporate houses. I’ve had several meetings with the chairmans, MDs and CEOs of various corporate houses. All of us are on the same page. We all feel equally passionate about providing solutions to society on this front. 

As told to Shantala Hari Dass, Associate Director at IndiaBioscience and Ranjini Raghunath, Communications Officer at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

Shekhar C. Mande is the Secretary, DSIR and Director General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research