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Shattered & Battered By Covid-19, India’s DRDO Comes Forward To Fight The Pandemic

India’s premier defense research body DRDO has lined up an impressive array of products and facilities that could help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Known for its cutting-edge R&D work in the military domain, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has now lent its tech support to the government, which is struggling to tackle the devastating second wave of the pandemic.

The DRDO has contributed immensely by developing a 2-DG drug against COVID-19, an oxygen supply system, an artificial intelligence (AI)-based Covid detection technology among others. It is also installing oxygen generation plants and setting up makeshift hospitals.

Makeshift Hospitals

On April 20, when India’s daily cases crossed the 300,000-mark, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh asked DRDO to scale up India’s medical infrastructure. The agency was asked to provide oxygen cylinders and extra beds to various state governments at the earliest.

According to Hindustan Times, DRDO has made makeshift hospitals with negative pressure tents. A negative pressure isolation room isolates a patient to protect others in the hospital and reduces the airborne concentration of the coronavirus.

DRDO has set up nine hospitals in the worst-hit cities such as Delhi, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Varanasi, Gandhi Nagar, Haldwani, Rishikesh, Jammu, and Srinagar so far. One in Panipat will become operational next week.

Some of these hospitals had been used last year as well. Besides, the DRDO-run Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel COVID Hospital in Delhi Cantt that was closed in the first week of February this year reopened on April 19.

Oxygen Plants

On April 28, the DRDO announced its plan to install about 500 oxygen plants under PM CARES Fund within the next three months. One plant can generate up to 1,000 liters of oxygen per minute which can cater to about 190 patients.

As reported by The Eurasian Times, these plants will be based on self-sustainable oxygen generation technology that has been used by the research body for IAF pilots flying the LCA Tejas.

Called Onboard Oxygen Generation System (OBOGS), this technology is used in fighter jet cockpits to compensate for the rapid decrease in oxygen levels at high altitudes.

According to DRDO, the OBOGS replaces the traditional Liquid Oxygen System (LOX) by utilizing bleed air or the compressed air from the aircraft engine and separating its components using molecular sieve (Zeolite) Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) technology.

To fast-track the project, the DRDO has decided to transfer this technology to Tata Advanced Systems Limited and Trident Pneumatics Pvt. Ltd.

The first two oxygen plants have been set up at All Indian Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) and Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital in Delhi on May 6. Similarly, there are plans to install lower-capacity medical oxygen plants at smaller hospitals.

In addition, DRDO, in collaboration with the German armed forces, has set up an oxygen plant at DRDO’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Covid Hospital in Delhi. Apart from meeting the requirement of this hospital, the plant can cater to other hospitals in need of oxygen as it has a facility to refill cylinders, news agency ANI reported.

Oxycare

Equipment made for soldiers also proves useful for COVID patents. On April 19, Bengaluru-based Defence Bioengineering and Electromedical Laboratory under DRDO announced the development of a SpO2 (Blood Oxygen Saturation) supplemental Oxygen Delivery System called Oxycare for soldiers stationed at high altitude.

The conditions of COVID patients are similar to the ones soldiers face at high altitudes. Both reach the condition of Hypoxia due to a lack of oxygen in which the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues is inadequate to fulfill all the energy requirements of the body.

SpO2 level is usually monitored with the help of an oximeter.

“The system reads SpO2 levels of the subject from a wrist-worn pulse oximeter module through a wireless interface and will automatically increase/decrease the O2 flow based on SpO2 setting,” DRDO said in a statement.

Anti-Covid Drug

The Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences of DRDO and pharmaceutical company Dr Reddy’s Laboratories have developed 2-deoxy-D-glucose or 2-DG drug. 

On May 8, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) approved the medicine for emergency use among COVID patients with moderate and severe symptoms.

Dr. Sudhir Chandana, DRDO Project Director and Scientist of 2-DG, told News18 that his organization discovered 2-DG’s effects on the coronavirus in April last year. “In May 2020, we got permission for the clinical trials. By the end of October 2020, we had completed the second phase of trials, and the results were very good,” he added.

The results showed that the drug’s molecule helps in the faster recovery of hospitalized patients and reduces supplemental oxygen dependence.

Despite criticism over the lack of published data on the effectiveness of this drug, DRDO chairman Dr. G Satheesh Reddy said it would be available in the market in three weeks.

AI-Based Technology

DRDO’s Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) has developed with the support of 5C Network & HCG Academics, an artificial intelligence-based application called ‘ATMAN AI’, that can detect Covid-19 infection by analyzing chest x-rays.

According to DRDO, this “AI-based intelligent, secure, web-based, Covid detection application software ATMAN…can classify the x-ray images into Normal, Covid-19 and Pneumonia classes using limited number (few hundreds) of sample images”.

“The virus affects the lungs early even before the patient starts showing significant symptoms. Thus, compared to an RT-PCR test which takes many hours, an X-ray-based diagnostic tool can detect the infection in the early stages with processing time in seconds,” the research body says. 

The results show a 96.73% accuracy, according to UK Singh, director, CAIR, DRDO. 

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