Governments and businesses should encourage new technologies to control the spread of the virus and enable ‘opening’ of offices, schools, colleges and cinemas rather than lockdowns. We need to bring back business to normal and kick-start the economy during Covid 2.0. No amount of advisories will work except vaccines and technology
By Ajai Chowdhry
As I woke up on Saturday, I read the grim news that India’s tally of daily cases (89,000) were the highest in the world, ahead of the US (70,024) and Brazil (69,662). This was the first day since October when India’s cases were the highest in the world. I also read in the FE that the reckless behaviour from a Covid-fatigued nation—along with the more virulent UK and South African strains in the country—has played a big role in the current surge.
I have heard of lockdowns, but we have learnt from our experience of the countrywide lockdown (which was necessary) last year. Many states and the Centre are wary of lockdowns as these impact livelihoods. But 657 buildings have been sealed in Mumbai!
The vaccine dilemma
Today, we are better prepared with two vaccines available. The US, under the Operation Warp Speed, seems to be catching up fast on vaccinations. The rest of the world is looking at the world’s largest producer, i.e. India. Soon, we will have approved more vaccines. We need to move fast on that.
But there are challenges with vaccination in India. We need to open it up for more categories based on availability. At the current rate, we may take more than 300 days to vaccinate 50% of the population. In any case, there is no vaccine that can take care of around 56% of the population currently (51% children and 5% pregnant woman). On top of this, there is some confusion in the minds of the eligible population. It is believed that even all frontline workers may not have taken the vaccine. As per the health ministry, the number of those vaccinated under this category is 24% higher than the known number. So, as usual, ‘jugaad’ is happening at many locations.
A lot of people worry about efficacy of each vaccine (mine is better than yours). They get confused and wait for the best. But as I read more and saw videos about it, I found that efficacy is not that important. This is because trials were done at different state of growth of the virus (including more variants). We should take what we get. All vaccines are okay if approved. As per Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: “The goal of the vaccine program for Covid-19 is not necessarily to get to Covid Zero but to tame the virus, to defang it, to remove its ability for serious hospitalization and death.” So, the real purpose is to give your body enough protection to avoid hospitalisation and death. (Of course, you can get infected in spite of the vaccine.)
We still don’t know enough about the disease and vaccines, but many predict that we may end up living with it and taking shots every year for various strains. The WHO said the second year of the pandemic could be tougher as coronavirus surges (Global News, January 2021). Concerns about clots persist. But we need to get on with vaccination. This could not be the end to all problems from pandemics. Bill Gates has warned that the next pandemic could be 10 times worse.
Even if you take the vaccine, it’s important to observe the right behaviour—masks, social distancing and washing hands frequently. This is very difficult in our country, what with high density of population and mask-fatigue, and so many festivals and weddings where all this goes for a toss.
But there are masks, and there are masks. The most basic ones are ‘use and throw’. A lot of technology has crept in here. N95 masks with proper fit are the ones recommended based on a study by the University of Cambridge. Breathability is also important. Many technologies have appeared on the material used. IIT Kanpur start-up E-Spin has created the Swasa N95 mask (reusable for 100 hours). Livinguard, a company in Switzerland founded by an Indian, Sanjeev Swamy, has a range of very advanced technology masks. These are washable 30 times and the material used is claimed to destroy up to 99.9% of SARS CoV-2. Another Indian company, AARMR, has designed cool masks to protect the user and still look good.
Surfaces and technology
Studies are still looking at how long the virus stays active on surfaces. It is unclear if this increases the chance of transmission. But it is known that the virus can survive on surfaces from a few hours to a few days, depending on the material. Here also many types of technologies are in use. The most popular are sprays. But these need to be used many times a day. Service companies have emerged that promote solutions at offices (use of special materials, spraying and using tunnels at offices etc). All these provide temporary relief. Studies done by the CDC have clarified that surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Technology for prevention
So, the coronavirus basically spreads from person to person. Infected persons (even with no symptoms) may emit aerosols when they talk, breathe or eat. These infectious particles can float or drift around the air for up to three hours. Closed spaces are where the virus thrives. Many technologies have emerged for closed spaces.
Air ionisers: Some companies in India and abroad have created such products. These are effective for 2-4 hours and can take care of airborne transmission only. They may produce ozone, which is harmful for human beings. This may be efficient in very small spaces and needs constant filter change and maintenance.
Ultraviolet devices: Many products are available with dubious claims. These are mainly effective for one-time disinfecting. Exposure from this can be harmful to human eyes and skin.
Sprays: Many products are available, but these are again one-time use and temporary, and some can be toxic to humans and the environment.
What is really needed is to bring back business to normal and kick-start the economy during Covid 2.0. No amount of advisories will work except vaccine and technology. Our schools will be closed for the second year running. Most IT companies and BPOs are running with WFH and in some cases suboptimal operations. Most large corporates and factories are again getting threatened by lockdowns, supply chain breaks, etc. And hospitality has a huge problem as restaurants etc will close.
Some interesting technologies have emerged. A US company has created an AI system that uses existing surveillance to create a real-time indoor positioning system for targeted disinfection. But this depends on constant disinfection and is not a 24×7 solution.
I have also heard of a water-based technology being worked on by some researchers in India. The most promising and proven technology comes from the start-up Shycocan Corp in India. When scientist Rajah Vijay Kumar announced this last year, a few naysayers felt this was not possible. Some questioned the physics. He says it adopts old physics principles. “When a superalloy (proprietary technology of the inventor) is excited, it emits a certain amount of photons. These photons bounce off various surfaces to eject electrons.” These electrons seek the negative charge of the virus, which, in turn, disables the spike protein of the virus. The cycle continues as these electrons combat the virus irrespective of the number of infected persons in the room. He says “the Shycocan does not harm any living thing—from microorganisms to fungi to even the largest animals and human beings.”
I met Dr Kumar in Bangalore many years ago. He is a prolific inventor and he showed me amazing technologies like the Cytotron that is known to cure cancer. He has 30-odd patents to his credit. The product has been tested scientifically in labs in the US, Mexico and India. It also has CE mark approval and the US FDA has allowed it to be sold in the US under its Enforcement Discretion Guidance during Covid-19 health emergency. Australia, New Zealand, the UAE and Malaysia have also allowed it. The company claims to have started exports already. The product is now used by some marquee customers in the private sector and the government. I was shown real experience of customers (on videos) in a factory, at a dentist practice, a cafe and a finance company.
I believe governments and businesses should encourage such technology and enable ‘opening’ of offices, schools, colleges and cinemas rather than another spectre of lockdowns. We need unlockdowns and be the first in the world to use Indian technology to do so.
The government encouraged development of ventilators last year, and we should encourage more innovations to boost the economy. This will be a welcome step towards real atmanirbharta and show our technological prowess to the world, in addition to vaccines. This is what I call vaccine plus technology.
(The author is founder, HCL)