By Shiran Illanperuma
Colombo, May 23 (Xinhua) : The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred domestic innovation in Sri Lanka, with state-affiliated institutions leading the way in designing and manufacturing local solutions to combat the pandemic.
Despite enforcing an early lockdown on March 20, ten days after the first domestic COVID-19 case, Sri Lanka faced bottlenecks in expanding testing to desired levels due to a shortage of equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits.
Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC), a public-private partnership based in the capital city Colombo, halted ongoing research and formed a 20-member task force of scientists and engineers to research anti-epidemic solutions such as face masks, hand sanitizers, and rapid test kits.
“The government needed enough PCR swabs to meet its target of 1500 tests a day but supply chains were disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” SLINTEC Chief Operating Officer Heminda Jayaweera told Xinhua.
“Within about a week, our team reverse engineered these swabs and, in partnership with the private sector, formed a fully-fledged manufacturing process at one third the cost of imports,” Jayaweera said.
“Sri Lanka has the knowhow for producing local alternatives to medical imports, and could even export. But scientists need patient investors and better access to production facilities,” said Jayaweera.
Lack of access to production facilities was an issue when the University of Peradeniya’s Faculty of Engineering designed a simple helmet-like visor to protect frontline healthcare workers from contagious droplets amid a shortage of PPE.
The state-affiliated Ceylon German Technical Training Institute (CGTTI), an automobile technical training institute equipped with laser cutters and 3D printers, stepped in to produce 700 units in two days with a staff of about four people.
“We have a lot of experience with laser cutting and our institute has the technicians and capacity to produce local solutions. We have even produced a walkthrough disinfection unit which was installed at the Ministry of Labour premises,” CGTTI Chairman Vinod Moonesinghe said.
“COVID-19 has shown us the necessity to build domestic manufacturing capability. That means not only expanding production facilities but also developing a chain of local parts and materials suppliers,” said Moonesinghe.
Supporting Local Inventors
Difficulty in accessing materials and supplies during the height of global lockdowns was also cited as a challenge for local production by Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission (SLIC) Prof. Rangika Halwatura.
Since March 23, the SLIC has collected 350 new inventions, including low-cost alternatives to imported medical equipment such as video laryngoscopes, ventilated PPE suitable for tropical climes, and natural herbal face masks.
“We first approached local hospitals to find out their requirements, and then invited engineers and scientists to provide solutions, with the best prototypes being trialed at local hospitals,” Halwatura said.
“We provide grants for building prototypes and assist in patent applications, but our inventors faced a few challenges in finding suppliers for parts and materials,” he added.
“Sri Lanka has innovative thinkers, we just need better facilities and local suppliers to complete the package. Luckily, I think COVID-19 has made investors see the need to back domestic innovation.”
(Photo of researchers at Sri Lanka Institute of Nano-techology, by Heminda Jayaweera/Xinhua)