India scurries to make coveralls for healthcare workers as outbreak spreads

Medical staff of an Intensive Care Unit tending to patients. Photo: PTI
India is in a hurry to find uninterrupted supply of Hazmat suit (Hazardous Material Suit), which are coveralls that the medical practitioners and paramedics wear while treating serious viral diseases, amidst the growing number of the novel Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) patients. The relief is that the Central government and a handful of companies are already in advanced stages of making those suits with the help of a Coimbatore-based autonomous research body which is the only one in the country to test and certify the quality of these suits.

The level of urgency is evident, as Ajay Singh, chairman and managing director of SpiceJet on Friday said that its King Air C 90 model aircraft has operated a special charter flight from Delhi to Coimbatore today on Government's request, at a very short notice to carry a Hazmat suit. "This will help local authorities replicate and start local manufacturing," he said. The flight was operated on a six-seater aircraft that SpiceJet has on lease. This was a chartered flight which was operated after taking all permissions on government request. The suit was flown down for necessary tests here, at a time when the lock-down has affected the regular cargo route.

Coimbatore-based The South India Textile Research Association (SITRA), an autonomous testing laboratory which tests medical grade textiles, established 10 years ago, has been working tirelessly to test the fabrics and the final suit, in order to make sure the safety and quality of the product. According to sources, it has so far tested on around 50 samples in last 60 days, multiple samples from the same players and almost seven to eight companies have succeeded in developing the final suit as per the quality, though initially most of the tests were failures.

The tests are comparatively tough, to comply with American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards, and tests has to be favourable for both the raw material and later for the finished suit, where it would also be tested for the quality and safety of the joints and ceilings of the suit, added experts. 

With Covid-19 becoming a pandemic across the globe, the few international companies which were into manufacturing these coveralls informed their inability to supply to India. Even the raw materials were earlier imported. However, Indian players have come out with quality raw materials and products which are now being tested in SITRA. Interestingly, the equipment to test the suits were also developed by SITRA and matched with the international quality standards. 

With the indegenously developed viral penetration tester, which carries a synthetic blood penetration test and viral penetration, using a kind of a virus to test,  are critical in such products and the research firm has made it cost effective and less time consuming. The tests are conducted at less than 15-20 per cent of the charges of global tests and the lead time to come out with the result per sample is around three days, compared to around a month in an international lab, which also means that it can conduct more tests in lesser time compared to the those labs. International labs also do not conduct larger volumes of tests.

Prakash Vasudevan, director of SITRA, when contacted, said that research lab is supported by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India and the government has been working tirelessly to find solutions for the health of the industry and the lab is assisting the government in this process. He added that there are around 20 members in his lab, of which only around six to seven are able to conduct the tests for the coverall.

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