Red tape stymieing biomed inventions
As the pandemic raged on for the last year and a half, the inventor's wheels also kept turning.
Laboratories came up with important biomedical prototypes of ventilators and hi-flow nasal cannulas which could save lives if produced in large quantities.
Only one of the inventions, however, has so far seen the light of day because of a lack of interest from investors and, in many cases, red tape.
Take Spondon for example. In April last year, when the pandemic had just begun, a team of innovators from Axion Engineering domestically produced a ventilator that would cost a fraction of the price of regular ventilators and be affordable for resource-strapped hospitals.
"A rough-edged black box with a plastic tube coming out of it, and a small LCD screen -- this could be the lifesaving ventilator for critical Covid-19 patients in the imminent future" is how this very newspaper had described Spondon.
The imminent future came and went, but Spondon unfortunately had to be shelved because of red tape.
"We had to suspend the project in May last year," said Baized Shuvo, chief executive officer of Axion Engineering. "We had gone through some unofficial trials, but we needed an overall official approval from the authorities to begin the clinical trials.
"When we contacted the relevant government authorities to start a trial, they told us that we need to reveal all technical specifications of the project to them. The main problem is that the supervisor assigned to our team was also working on a similar prototype, so we did not feel comfortable sharing all the specifications with him," said Shuvo. He requested this correspondent to refrain from disclosing the name of the government authority.
He said many hospitals and doctors approached them, expressing their interests in buying the ventilator. "We had to turn down the request as we didn't get the official approval," he added.
The government hospital system has a total of 1,225 ventilators, and over 13,000 patients are currently hospitalised with Covid-19. Many such patients would not get ventilator support despite requiring critical care.
All medical innovations need the Directorate General of Drug Administration's (DGDA) approval and a clearance from the Bangladesh Medical Research Council to begin clinical trials. To get this approval from the drug authorities, such devices must be produced in a factory that has ISO: 13485 compliance.
This has, however, become a thorn in the inventors' throat.
Dr Jahid Ferdous, an assistant professor of Buet's Department of Biomedical Engineering, and his team had developed a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) that could protect healthcare workers from contaminated air.
It is essentially a hood that covers the whole head, and makes sure contaminated air cannot get in by creating a higher air pressure inside the mask.
Needless to say, a PAPR is more effective than a mask respirator.
"Doctors and healthcare workers have been highly affected during this pandemic. This prototype was made keeping them in mind," said Ferdous. "We did several tests to make sure that the respirator was comfortable to use, that it was not hot or humid inside. The respirator passed all tests."
They did a presentation at the DGDA, and learned that to get the approval they needed to find a company for production purposes.
"But we could not find a company willing to produce this, even though our Buet alumni were ready to invest in the project," said Ferdous. The project was shelved last year around September.
"I understand the limitations of the authorities. They tried to link us with companies but nobody was interested. Now, we do not have the motivation to invent new things in such a situation," he added.
A similar fate was met by his colleague Dr Tarik Arafat's disinfection chamber that uses ultraviolet rays to sterilise masks and PPE.
Arafat, who is an associate professor at the same department in Buet, and his students Mehnaz, Oishi, Sushanto, and Aneem made the prototype.
But they could not find any industry partners interested in investing in their project, even though a major pharmaceutical company was toying with a similar idea at the same time.
"We had discussions with the DGDA. But as we could not find any industry partners, we never formally applied to the authorities," he said.
It is not as if the pharmaceutical bigwigs do not have the money -- the pharmaceutical market is expected to surpass $6 billion by 2025 and currently caters to 97 percent of the local demand.
Dr Ruhul Amin, director of Bangladesh Medical Research Council, opined that it is in situations like this that the government can step in and sponsor the production.
"If the prototype is technically sound, the government can finance it," said Amin.
The government has the money -- Tk 100 crore has been allocated to finance health researches for the current fiscal year.
Recently, the DGDA has approved the production and use of OxyJet CPAP, a locally-developed cost-effective portable ventilator, on a limited scale.
"Yes, the DGDA approved 200 OxyJet devices for restricted use," Md Salahuddin, director of the DGDA, told The Daily Star while replying to a query.
OxyJet CPAP is a non-invasive machine that can provide high-flow oxygen in places that do not have electricity, for example in an ambulance or a village hospital. All one would need is an oxygen cylinder.
OxyJet CPAP can provide up to 60 litres/minute of oxygen, and can be used to buy precious time for patients waiting for an intensive care unit bed.
A device like this could be crucial at a time, when only as little as 900 hi-flow nasal cannulas are being shared by the hospitals of districts outside of Dhaka.
Amidst the ongoing countrywide strain on the supply of medical oxygen, researchers at Buet's Department of Biomedical Engineering developed this non-invasive device, said Dr Taufiq Hasan, who led the inventors' team.
The fate of the other inventions, in the meantime, hangs in the balance.