"Lockdown puts a brake on the virus and gives us time to prepare"

Globally, as nations curb the export of critical drugs and equipment to deal with Covid-19, India, with its limited resources, must find indigenous solutions to tackle it. India’s Principal Scientific Adviser
K Vijay Raghavan is the man in the hot seat. In an interview with
Malini Goyal, he talks about how the country is preparing to fight the battle. Edited excerpts:

What is the significance of the nationwide lockdown in the fight against Covid-19?

We are in a lockdown which, in some way, puts a brake on the virus. It cannot spread at the speed at which it was spreading. This has given us time to prepare and will help us put in place measures that will serve us well once the lockdown is removed. These measures are of three kinds. One, it will help us scale our testing in the standard way, which is the RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) technique where you test the nasal swab sample for virus’ presence. Then we must also test in new ways which is pinprick blood test to look for antibodies against the virus. This allows late detection of virus’ presence with reasonable efficiency and is handy, available and can be a reasonable measure to test after four-seven days. Two, our newly launched app Aarogya Setu will allow us to keep track of infections and hotspots. Three, all this will keep us updated on the virus’ growth, trajectory and hotspots in the country. This will help us put in place massive measures to match demand and supply of healthcare facilities and accordingly move our personnel and resources where the needs will be. The Health Ministry and other ministries have come together to understand in an integrated way the demand and supply and deal with the situation.

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Won’t Aarogya Setu have limitations?
While it is available on smartphones, it will also be available on feature phones which will increase the penetration substantially. I cannot overstate the importance of the app. And it won’t succeed unless a large number of people use it.

From ventilators to testing kits, what are some of India’s biggest constraints as far as healthcare infrastructure is concerned? And how are we tackling it?
The constraints are reasonably well known. And we are working to tackle them. Take, for example, ventilators. Ventilators were typically being imported. In this environment, imports are difficult. AgVa Healthcare is a well-known med-tech startup, which has developed ventilators in partnership with Dr Deepak Agrawal at AIIMS, Delhi. These are compact, portable and low-cost. They are now scaling up enormously. It is incredible to see how the component supply chain is being developed and scaled up. Many of our startups are now looking at the problems we need to solve and helping us find solutions. A committee headed by Amitabh Kant (CEO of NITI Aayog) is looking into how we could build many of these medical devices indigenously. Many of the AI/ML startups are now helping us in the tracking and treatment of patients. It is wonderful to see that all the investment we made in startups four-five years back, thinking it is fun and a good idea, is now paying off disproportionately in our fight against Covid-19. I have not even mentioned big companies like Tata, Mahindra, Kirloskar and Maruti, which are helping us. Tell us about the role our labs and scientists are playing in this fight. We have a very strong base of science and technology, which is now helping us. Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) has just developed a new kind of test that allows us to deploy on the field in a new and rapid manner. IISc is working in partnership with a Pune institute to develop vaccines. Many of our CSIR labs are working to repurpose drugs based on modelling that gives insights on virus-drug interactions. Many of these, like the IGIB test kits, should be out in the next few weeks, What is so good to see is that everyone, from bureaucrats to scientists and technologists, is working together to solve some of these big problems we are dealing with. What would have normally taken months to collaborate and see results is now happening in weeks. A strong sense of shared purpose is visible today.

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Would Covid-19 have a lasting impact on how India invests in science and research?
Yes. All the debate around pure and applied science will go away. There is a strong realisation that science and society are deeply connected. Our war with and victory over Covid-19 will strengthen it.

What are your views on India’s testing strategy, which has got a lot of criticism?
Testing is important and it has both qualitative and quantitative sides. Testing should be stratified, scaled-up and include new techniques. We are working towards it. The lockdown has given us time to prepare. We must keep in mind that decisions are taken in a rapidly evolving situation with limited information and resources. Some assumptions will hold and some will not. We must have the ability to quickly change things when needed. The world is facing an enormous crisis. In a country with 1.3 billion, to do things we have done requires tremendous courage.


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