On an invitation of the His Excellency the President of Sri Lanka, The Vice Chancellor of University of Peradeniya, The Team Leader of the Face Mask Invention Team, Professor RMG. Rajapakse, Senior Professor of the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, and the Team Leader of the COVID-19 Detection Kit, Dr. Ruchika Fernando of the Department of Veterinary Public Health and Pharmacology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science visited the Presidential Secretariat on the Tuesday 27th April, 2021 at 9.30 am. The team was invited to present their inventions and to reveal their current status before the His Excellency the President, Honourable Prime Minister and all the Cabinet Ministers who were participating in the cabinet meeting. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Upul B. Dissanayake, gave a short introduction to the two inventions and stated that this is the first time any university academic addressing the cabinet since the address given by Sir Ivor Jennings on the need to establish universities in Sri Lanka some 75 years ago. Professor Dissanayake thanked the relevant authorities for inviting us to present our discoveries that are in the process of becoming commercial products.
Professor Rajapakse addressed the gathering with a short 5-minute PowerPoint presentation featuring the novel and beneficial aspects of the RESPIRONE NANO AV 99 face mask. He stressed the fact that this is the first time any invention made by University of Peradeniya has been converted into a commercial product thanks to the guidance and assistance provided by the Honourable Minister of Trade, Dr. Bandula Gunawardena, who worked very hard to convert the new invention to a commercial product through the manufacturing partner, Sarasavi Industries Pvt. Ltd. The novel face mask is composed of three layers, adjustable ear loops, and is available in three colours, white, black and brown with three sizes, large, medium and small. The polybag in which the face mask is enclosed is also biodegradable and the mask enclosed within the polybag is enclosed in a cardboard box with all important details printed on the front and back sides of the box in Sinhalese and English media.
The reason for inventing such a mask is to develop a face mask that is environmentally friendly and bio-degradable and to reuse as much as possible without losing the properties induced by the three layers in order to reduce the waste burden and the impact on the environment. As the such, cotton fabric was chosen as the natural fabric material to develop the face mask. The cotton fabrics used for three layers have been nanotechnologically modified to have inherent properties. The outer layer of cotton fabric was modified to possess superhydrophobicity to ensure that it would repel any aerosol particles containing the virus, blood or any other water-based stains as the way the lotus leaf does. This is to make sure to reject and repel any aerosol particle containing the virus is fallen on the outer layer. However, by any chance the particles or the virus penetrates the outer layer and reaches the nanotechnologically modified middle layer of cotton fabric it is electrostatically bound by the microparticles used to cover the pores of the cotton fabric to the level below 300 nm. As such, the aerosol particles and the virus are held strongly without allowing seep through it by both mechanical hindrance by the pores which are smaller than the aerosol particles and electrostatic binding of the negatively charged viral envelope on the positively charged microparticles. The star-shaped nanoparticles present throughout the surface of this layer are able to cut the spike proteins and the viral envelope thus deactivating the virus. The innermost layer is made up of 100% hydrophilic cotton to make sure to adsorb carbon dioxide and moisture present in the exhaled air and to quickly expel from the headspace not allowing for re-inhalation of carbon dioxide-rich air. This is the first-time global invention of a face mask with all these properties. Professor Rajapakse further demonstrated that the properties remain for at least 25 washing cycles. As such, this face mask can be reused after washing or disinfecting at least for a period of one month. He also stated that most of the face masks currently available in the market are made of polypropylene and are meant for only one-time use. The current world population is 7.9 billion and everyone is expected to wear a mask during this pandemic situation. This means that at least 7.9 billion face masks are to be discarded into the environment every day and the consequences of discarding non-biodegradable materials in such vast quantities are unimaginable. He also requested the relevant authorities to take necessary action to expedite the process of the NMRA approval.
Dr. Fernando then briefed the gathering about the features of the novel test kit invented by the University of Peradeniya to diagnose SARS-CoV-2 infected patients without the need of any specialized equipment such as PCR machines in a relatively shorter time with higher accuracy and cost-effectively. Further, Dr. Fernando stated that this kit is based on the Reverse Transcription-Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification (RT-LAMP) principle and therefore patients are detected based on the amplification of SARS-CoV-2 virus-specific RNA in the sample and compatible with patient samples collected for regular qRT-PCR. He further stated that the cost of a single test of this kit would be around Rs. 1500 and final results can be provided within 2 hours from the point of collecting the samples (i.e. about 1/3 of the time taken for qRT-PCR). Further, he stated that the positive agreement of this test kit with qRT-PCR is very high (97%) compared to similar alternatives such as Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) in which the positive agreement with qRT-PCR can be in the range of 12-71%. Also, he explained that the test kit is equipped with an internal control assay based on human beta-actin messenger RNA which can confirm the quality of the patient sample received by the laboratory. Furthermore, Dr. Fernando stated that they are currently validating another version of the same test kit working with saliva samples of the patients eliminating the need of taking painful nasal swabs and lengthy RNA extraction process which can be easily deployed at places such as airports, schools, universities and factories.
Finally, Dr. Fernando highlighted the fact that the commercial partner Medivesta Remedies (Pvt) Ltd. has applied for National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) approval and if it is granted, the government can save up to 50% of the spending on diagnosis patients using qRT-PCR. At the end of his presentation, His Excellency President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked what is needed from the government’s side to manufacture this kit on a larger scale. Then, Dr. Fernando replied that NMRA approval is essential before commercially manufacturing this kit. At this juncture, Honourable Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi provided an appointment on 29.04.2021 at 10.30 AM to discuss the matter with relevant officials to see the possibility of expediting the process. The team left the Presidential Secretariat at 11:00 am for a Press Conference and interviews with journalists which were arranged at the Trade Ministry. The Honourable Minister of Trade, Dr. Bandula Gunawardena explained the reason for calling the press conference. That is to launch the face masks through State Trading Corporation to be available for the general public through CWC (“Sathosa”) stores throughout the country and to make the public aware of the novel low-cost, fast and accurate COVID-19 detection kit developed by the University of Peradeniya. The Vice-Chancellor and the two leaders of the research teams also addressed the public.