How IITs are leading India’s fight against Covid-19

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During the pandemic, many higher education institutions remember the fate of Isaac Newton: Soon after the young philosopher had obtained his BA degree in 1665, Cambridge’s Trinity College closed. The Plague – known as the “Black Death” – had approached and killed nearly a quarter of London’s population. In his home confinement in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Newton worked on some of his most important theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

It was this story that inspired scientists even on the other side of the globe in India, where the Corona lockdown was prolonged for two more weeks last Sunday. The Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) kick-started a row of digital competitions, and creative distance assignments, and named it after the historic English genius: “Project Isaac”. It was launched to engage students “and to enhance their critical skills while they are confined to their rooms or homes during the Covid-19 crisis,” said director Sudhir K. Jain to Paeradigms.

Under this project, the has introduced several contests for its students as well as alumni – such as a “Leadership Video Challenge”, a Covid-19 Research Award, creative writing competitions, and even a “Battleships” game programming challenge. “Nearly 60 per cent of the student body participated in these voluntary projects,” Jain told us. Once the institute resumes normal academic activities, the most creative will be rewarded during the “Project Isaac Showcase”.

Due to the Corona pandemic, roughly 1,000 Universities and 40,000 colleges in India are temporarily closing, leaving 37 million students without classes, a KPMG assessment estimated in April. Whilst the economy of the subcontinent is at a near standstill, many of the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology are buzzing with innovation.

According to the latest data from the Council of Indian Institutes of Technology, IIT institutes across the country are engaged in 238 active research projects to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Of these, 39 research projects are based on data analytics and artificial intelligence to model epidemic patterns and disease dynamics.

According to the latest data from the Council of Indian Institutes of Technology, IIT institutes across the country are engaged in 238 active research projects to tackle the Covid-19 crisis
IIT institutes across the country are engaged in 238 active research projects to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. (Photo: File)

At IIT Gandhinagar, a team of faculty and students have developed an interactive “Covid-19 Dashboard” that provides different epidemiological scenario-specific information at a city-scale. It is aimed at helping various stakeholders in optimising testing and post-lockdown operations to contain community infection. “One of our students has developed a mobile application that was inspired by the difficulties faced by his family in getting essential goods during the lockdown,” adds director Jain.

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The student along with his batch mates have developed COSHOP, a website and an android app based solution that can help people find a local grocery and medical shop near their home for home delivery of essentials. Currently, it provides details of shops in cities like Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar, Tirupati and Ludhiana.

At the IIT counterpart in Delhi a detection assay for Covid-19 was developed which has now been approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). This makes the first academic institute to have obtained national support for a real-time test based on Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).

As the spread of Covid -19 has resulted in a huge demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), a team of researchers at IIT Kanpur along with industry partners have designed a unique kit. It is based on thin cylindrical rolls of polyethylene, which is non-porous and commonly used in the industry for packaging and making plastic bags. As standard PPE kits become scarce, there is a need for low-cost and mass producible alternatives that provide protection for the entire body. The technology is made open source for anybody to make it.

Earlier this month, the IIT Alumni Council announced the launch of India’s first Covid-19 test bus in Mumbai. The city hosts Asia’s biggest slum called “Dharavi” where the disease has spread quickly up to 1,185 sick and 23 deaths. The bus is designated to collect samples for rapid testing in the most affected areas. This laboratory on wheels can reduce the cost of testing by over 80 per cent without compromising testing capacity.

While many higher education institutes across the world have totally suspended the classes and are waiting for the situation to become favorable, IITs in India continue to engage their students with innovative projects that are helping the country in its fight against Covid-19.

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