The Good News – A Summary of Global Innovation In Response to the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting the lives of billions of people and slowing the global economy to a crawl. We are using geographic information systems (GIS) to map infection rates and track the spread of the virus and our social media feeds are full of infection dashboards, speculation about when the curve is going to flatten and whether the economy will survive. Despite all of this, some good is coming out of the pandemic. Here are a few of the good news stories I found this week.
Around the world, 3-D print manufacturers and medical professionals are collaborating to design and print ventilator parts, face shields and other protective equipment for use in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Designs are being shared for free online, and prototypes are being submitted to governments around the world for approval. 3-D printers are even being used to build isolation wards. Sonovia, an Israeli health tech firm, is developing anti-viral masks using ultrasonic fabric finishing technology that imbeds zinc and copper nanoparticles into the cloth masks. At Mass General the medical residents are planning an online open moonshot competition to develop a rapidly deployable mechanical ventilator in 90 days that can either serve multiple patients at once or be easily replicated so many units can be produced quickly. Nearby, MIT is working on the same idea and is close to deploying a low cost ventilator. Local companies are developing cloth masks for use by the general public so that the limited supply of protective paper masks can be used by medical staff in hospitals. In Tampa Bay and elsewhere alcoholic beverage manufacturers are producing hand sanitizer.On April 4th, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first 3-D printed mask for liquid barrier protection for medical workers. The mask was designed by the Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem.
COVID-19 Diagnostics & Treatments
Social innovators are using technology to diagnose and treat COVID-19. In Jordan, AlTibbi, a digital-health platform in the Middle East and North Africa region in partnership with the government has launched a free telehealth hotline where Jordanians can dial 111, be connected to certified doctors and be assessed for COVID-19 in the safety of their own homes. Meanwhile, Simprints, a biometric data company, has successfully deployed its biometric patient ID system with health workers in 12 countries and is adding a contactless mode that has demonstrated high levels of accuracy in field tests across sub-Saharan Africa. This technology could assist with tracking patients and disease surveillance in parts of the world with limited medical resources and infrastructure. Weekend before last, a virtual hackathon based in Germany drew over 40,000 participants who generated 800 ideas for programs and equipment to fight the novel coronavirus. The FDA has also given emergency approval to Abbott Laboratories for a molecular point of care diagnostic tool that can diagnose the virus in five minutes in a physician’s office.
Veredus Labs has released a diagnostic tool that uses a nasal swab and molecular fingerprinting to identify the virus. This is being tested in Europe now. ZTE says that it used a combination of outdoor 5G hardware and indoor 5G base stations to transform a West China Hospital conference room into a remote diagnosis and treatment center.
Researchers at John Hopkins have developed a convalescent serum therapy to treat COVID-19 using blood plasma from recovered patients and the FDA fast-tracked the approval for starting clinical trials. The clinical trial will test if the therapy can be used to protect healthy frontline medical workers by making them resistant to infection despite workplace exposure to the virus. A potential vaccine has been developed by the company Inovio and its clinical trials are being backed by the Gates Foundation. If trials are successful, the vaccine could be approved for use this summer. The Folding@home distributed computing project is allowing citizen scientists to search for protein structures that drugs could target to fight COVID-19. So many citizen scientists are participating that a billion billion calculations (an exaflop) are being run per second, making the calculations faster than the world’s largest supercomputer.
Around the world drones are being used to monitor traffic, broadcast messages, sterilize spaces and deliver medical supplies and other goods through contactless delivery. DJI, a major drone manufacturer reported its drones, equipped with infrared cameras were used to monitor body temperature at screening checkpoints in China, and another drone designed for crop monitoring was modified and used to spray to control infectious disease.
Locally, Zing Drones is ramping up its contactless restaurant delivery services. Drones manufactured by Draganfly have been acquired by the government of Australia and will be used to monitor temperature, coughing and sneezing through remote sensing technology. The government hopes to identify potentially ill individuals to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Australia.
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
Artificial Intelligence and machine learning applications are being advanced to monitor social movements and track disease using facial recognition software. Blue Dot, an infectious disease surveillance company uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to review 100,000 articles in 65 languages each day to track when 100 different infectious diseases are reported in the news. The same company uses airline and other transportation data to predict how disease will spread. Blue Dot successfully identified the novel coronavirus before the world health organization identified it as a pandemic.
The company Metabiota monitors online chat rooms and forums using similar technology, and is using the data to predict the level of social and economic disruption associated with different infectious disease outbreaks. Other uses for AI include assisting in the planning of distribution of medical supplies by predicting rates of infection in different communities. At MIT, a group of computer science researchers are collaborating with the Boston biotech community to use machine learning to identify promising antiviral molecules in drugs already under development and in clinical trials to see if the experimental drugs can be used to treat COVID-19. Several health tech startups have created chatbots that diagnose disease via text using artificial intelligence to process patient responses in the chat. If a patient has fever or shortness of breath, the chatbot asks about recent travel and exposure to the virus to screen for potential infection. Flu Sense, developed by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is a portable device that listens to sniffles and sneezes to detect influenza symptoms in waiting rooms. Athena Security is developing an add on to its gun detection security camera to identify people with fevers.
Robotics engineers are working on a variety of projects that utilize robots as health care providers and to provide social interaction to those who are isolated at home by the virus. In China robots were used to deliver supplies in hospitals, take patient temperatures (check out the video in the link). Dimer UVC Innovation has created the GermFalcon Robot to sanitize airports and airplanes. The robot is designed to navigate through planes and cover all surfaces with UVC light to kill surface bacteria and viruses.
There were also some announcements for research money being offered to spur innovation.The National Science Foundation announced funding to conduct non-medical, non-clinical-care research that can be used immediately to explore how to model and understand the spread of COVID-19, to inform and educate about the science of virus transmission and prevention, and to encourage the development of processes and actions to address this global challenge. Researchers may use the Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism to submit requests up to $200,000 and up to one year in duration. The Roddenberry Foundation suggests that the one million dollar Roddenberry Prize is a call for big, bold solutions from anyone, anywhere that address the challenges of an unpredictable and fast-changing global landscape. Four game-changing and innovative solutions will each receive $250,000 for their work in one of the following fields: Education, Science, Environment, and Humanity. In response to Covid-19, the Foundation strongly encourages applications that address the range of societal, health, and economic repercussions of the pandemic. Antler, a start up generator has issued a global call for Start-Ups Tackling COVID-19. The program aims to contribute towards the path recovery from the crisis. Antler is inviting startups to propose solutions in mitigation (e.g. masks, contact tracing, surveillance, data infrastructure), medical equipment (e.g. test kits, protective devices, ventilators), remote health (e.g. telehealth, remote patient monitoring, symptom checkers), and digital tools (e.g. remote work, smart delivery, e-learning). Applications are due April 15, 2020.
Finally – One bit of low tech news – the U.S. Citrus Industry is responding to soaring demand for orange juice and citrus fruit. During the month of March, orange juice sales were up 25%. Stay healthy and have a great weekend!