CSIR Intensifies Fight Against COVID-19, Rolls Out Key Initiatives to Combat Coronavirus Spread

The coronavirus pandemic continuing its deadly run by infecting more than a million people and causing the death of more than 82,000 people across the world, the laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) intensified their efforts at combating the pandemic. 

CSIR labs have been contributing extensively to control the spread of coronavirus by providing sanitizers, soaps, masks, PPEs and ready to eat food. The labs have now also started working on diagnosis and treatment for which five verticals have been set up:

  • Digital and molecular surveillance
  • Rapid and economical diagnosis
  • Development of new drugs/repurposing of drugs
  • Hospital assistive devices
  • PPEs, supply chain and logistics

In face of the unique challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, CSIR labs have managed to come up with innovations and leads that could go a long way in combating the challenge.

Unravelling the Virus

To begin with, since understanding the enemy is important, two institutes – CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), New Delhi – are working on sequencing the genome of the COVID-19 virus. With a better understanding of the evolution and dynamic nature of the virus useful inferences could be drawn about the nature and working of the COVID-19 virus.

A better understanding of the strain of the virus would enable the institutes to establish the family tree of the virus and implement better isolation strategies. Generating genome sequences of viral isolates from across the country will also help understand the genetic component influencing the variability in individual response to the viral infection by studying patient genotypes. CSIR-IGIB will also try to understand the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the patient vis-à-vis the genetic makeup of the patient by following a cohort of patients in the long term.

Quick & Cost-effective Test for COVID-19

With the country reaching the stage in the course of the coronavirus pandemic where rapid testing has become essential, scientists of the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), New Delhi, have come up with a low-cost, paper-strip coronavirus test which can detect the virus within an hour. The paper-strip test, similar to the test used to confirm pregnancy, utilises CRISPR-Cas9, a cutting-edge gene-editing tool. Not only is the test cost-effective – it costs Rs 500 as compared to the PCR test being currently used and which costs Rs 4500 – the test does not need dedicated machinery or specialised skill. 

PCR testing involves RNA isolation, DNA conversion and amplification and is in limited supply. CSIR-IGIB’s paper-strip test can be performed using equipment available in pathological labs. And this is the USP of the test. As infections shoot up the test can be employed in local clinics to test larger numbers in lesser time.

Meanwhile, CSIR-CEERI, Pilani, along with CSIR-IMTECH, IIT Ropar and TCS, Mumbai, is also developing a portable and rapid COVID-19 detection device which will be based on antibody-antigen reaction. The Institute is also working with CSIR-NIIST, CSIR-IICB, IIT-Ropar and TCS, Mumbai, develop a portable and instant COVID-19 detection device which will be based on Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) active chip and Artificial Intelligence based hand-held Raman spectrometer.

CSIR-Central Food Technological Research Institute (CSIR-CFTRI), Mysuru, joined hands with the district administration by making available equipment needed for testing of samples. The institute is providing two PCR machines and one RNA extraction unit along with necessary chemicals to the district administration for coping with the large number of samples to be tested in the district. The PCR machines were handed over on 5 April 2020. The machines will help by tripling the number of tests conducted per day. 

Gearing up for COVID-19 Testing: After the decision of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) to allow CSIR labs to carry out COVID-19 testing to increase the testing rate among suspected patients, several CSIR labs have geared up to take up the responsibility. CSIR labs are fully equipped with the requisite expertise, equipment and the facilities required for rapid testing.

CSIR will work on RT-PCR based, RNA sequence-based, Crispr/Cas based paper diagnostic and sero diagnosis. CSIR laboratories namely CSIR-CCMB, CSIR-IGIB, CSIR-IICB, CSIR-IMT, CSIR-IICT are equipped with the requisite facilities to do genome sequencing of all the samples. CSIR labs, CSIR-CCMB, CSIR-IGIB, and CSIR-IMTECH have received approval for testing Coronvirus patient samples. Nearly 10 other CSIR labs are in the process of gearing up for testing.

CSIR labs have also made preparations for synthesis of reagents that are required in large quantities for bulk RT-PCR diagnosis. CSIR-IICT will be the lead laboratory in this endeavour with participation from CSIR-NCL. CSIR-IICT has been able to develop recombinant enzymes (Reverse Transcriptase and DNA polymerase and two other proteins) that are used in RT-PCR reaction. At present supplies sufficient for more than 5 lakh reactions are ready. Also, enzymes are available for distribution to anybody who would like to make RT-PCR kits. 

CSIR-CCMB has also trained medical staff in handling patient samples and performing RT-PCT detection assays from Telangana Medical institutions designated as COVID-19 testing centres.

Developing Drugs for Treatment Options :To come up with immediate treatment options, CSIR’s main focus is on working on the repurposing of existing drugs and synthesis of repurposed drugs. CSIR has partnered with some of the major Pharmaceutical companies. 

It has been identified that WHO approved drugs such as Paracetamol, Remdesivir, Hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin, Flaviparavir, Lupinivir, etc. can be helpful for coronavirus treatment in India. Laboratories like CSIR-IICT and CSIR-CDRI are fully equipped and will be carrying out repurposing of such drugs to COVID-19 treatment as per WHO norms. Pharmaceutical company Cipla has already announced that it is fast-tracking repurposing of its wide variety of respiratory, asthma, anti-virals and HIV drugs to meet challenges arising from coronavirus in collaboration with scientists from the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (CSIR-IICT), Hyderabad. CSIR-IICT has also been able to source about 200 Favipiravir tablets from Japan for comparative studies.

In face of a shortage of drug intermediates or key starting materials, as the imports from China will be very costly, CSIR-NCL has designed a roadmap for the synthesis and indigenous manufacture of drug intermediates and key starting materials for essential drugs (announced by the Union Cabinet on 21 March) using chemical synthesis and continuous flow process.

Leads from Natural Products: CSIR is working closely with the Department of Ayush for developing preventive and prophylactic symptom management and add-on interventions to the modern medicine treatments. 

CSIR-IIIM, Jammu is working on the development of Cocculus hirsutus andGlycyrrhiza glabra as phytopharmaceutical leads for COVID-19 in collaboration with Sun Pharma.

CSIR-CDRI has isolated important andrographolides, neoandrographolides and graphisides from Andrographis paniculata (Kalmegh) for testing their efficacy against COVID Sars-2. In silico target-based screening, studies suggest that some of these can inhibit critical proteins like the CL-proteinase of the pathogen. Kalmegh is an important plant reported in traditional medicine, both as an immune booster and also for antiviral activities.

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