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IIT Kharagpur makes COVID detection cheap and easy

A 1×1 feet cubical box, smaller than an induction cooker, could hold the key to rapid testing for the coronavirus. The instrument, developed over five months by researchers at IIT Kharagpur, costs about Rs 2,000 and gives test results within two hours.

The commonly used test for Covid-19 now is RT-PCR, a process that repeatedly copies and amplifies the specific genetic fragment (ribonucleic acid) of the virus, ensuring enough samples to conduct the analysis. The testing is a lengthy process (4-8 hours), and results usually take a day to arrive. It is also an expensive test. Initially, the Indian Council of Medical Research had capped its price at Rs 4,500.

In comparison, antigen testing is a quicker 30-minute affair and, at Rs 450, easy on the pocket. However, while the test is useful for screening, it’s not a confirmatory test. Since antigens do not involve any amplification process, swab samples may lack enough material to be detectable. But it helps ease the load on RT-PCR. An antibody test or serological test is a way of detecting whether the person has antibodies to the virus, thereby determining if the person was exposed to the virus recently.

The government’s rapid antigen test is also low-cost, designed to detect a specific protein in the virus that elicits the body’s immune response, but it is again just a screening test. To confirm, you have to go to the labs. IIT Kharagpur’s portable, non-invasive rapid detection test guarantees confirmed test results at a nominal cost of Rs 400. Collection and processing of the swab, though, still require a visit to the lab. The RNA extracted from the swab has to be fed to the machine.

The idea for a portable rapid diagnostic device took root towards the end of March after the nationwide lockdown announcement. Prof. Suman Chakrabarty from the mechanical engineering department and Arindam Mondol from the School of Biosciences realised that the detection of coronavirus cases would be a significant challenge since 70 per cent of rural India has little or no access to specialised laboratories. Thinking of alternatives, the professors wondered, why not take the lab to the people and make it available at their doorstep.

“The machine’s working is simple; an ASHA worker can operate it,” says Chakrabarty. “Open the lid, insert the RNA tube in the portable enclosure and wait for the heating and cooling process, an automated pre-programmable temperature control unit, to give the genomic analysis. The specially calibrated detection unit will give the test results through colour development, as in a pregnancy test. There’s a customised smartphone application for disseminating the test results, all of which will take a maximum of an hour.”

One can use a single portable unit for several tests. All it requires is a replacement of the paper cartridge after each analysis. The equipment will cost Rs 2,000 in the pilot stage, but with scaled-up commercial production, the costs should come down further. IIT Kharagpur is ready to produce the machine on a commercial basis and is hoping to tie up with corporates/ start-ups for technology licensing and commercial production.

“We were looking to decentralise the laboratory structure by innovating something portable, with as minimum infrastructure as possible. It also had to be easy to operate and, above all, low on budget. Since we had been working for a long time developing machines to detect other diseases, it took no time to focus our technical know-how on making the innovation Covid-specific,” says Chakrabarty.

The institute’s Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Park, with infrastructure support from the Focus Incubation Centre and sponsored by the Union ministry of textiles, has also developed P3 layered surgical masks. Affordability has again been a consideration. The target for full commercial production is 100,000 units per month, and the cost will be Rs 10 per piece. “We are conducting further experiments using natural fibres such as fruit peels for fully bio-degradable masks,” says Dr Satyabrata Ghosh, a research associate at the biotechnology department and director of Anigiene Technical Textiles.

A vehicle-based mechanised broom to help clean up the 2,100-acre campus is another significant innovation from the institute’s stable. Named Sammarjak MB 4.2 operates using a battery and solar power technology and consists of two mechanised brooms. “The system is highly flexible and suitable for Indian road conditions, including semi-urban areas. The technology keeps in mind the undulations, and the brooms can be adjusted,” says Prof. Mihir Sarangi. The device can help supplement the 30 per cent workforce on the ground, keeping with the restrictions laid down by social distancing.

Another breakthrough innovation is the robotics research department’s low-cost, AI-based cyber-physical system for monitoring physical distance in public places. After detecting the gap visually through the field view of a camera, the device computes the range as per the health ministry’s criteria and sounds a proximity alert alarm for violations. The researchers hope that malls and markets will use it extensively. Tests in the congested markets of Kharagpur yielded positive results.

A data-driven healthcare technology start-up, Innovaccer, co-founded by Abhinav Shashank and Kanav Hasija of the 2010 batch, now has a self-assessment app to detect Covid. The Innovaccer Covid Assistant app asks users to fill in a survey form based on their symptoms. – India Today