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5 Ways The World Fought Back

Sam Worley
March 28, 2020
"Knowing whether you’ve had the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 might soon be as easy as the prick of a finger, manufacturers of hockey gear are making protective equipment for doctors and nurses battling the pandemic, and the world’s fastest supercomputer has been enlisted in the race to find drug treatments. Here's our weekly dose of science news from the fight against COVID-19.

Test Maker, Test Maker, Make Me A Test

Top and above: If a new antibody test is successful, just a finger prick's worth of blood will be needed to tell if a person has been infected with the coronavirus. Images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The British government is evaluating “finger prick tests” for coronavirus that it could soon make broadly available. Public Health England said the tests could be taken at home and return results in 15 minutes.

Why does it matter? People can learn whether they’ve had the virus and therefore may have some measure of immunity to it, according to The Guardian, which says that the antibody tests’ widespread availability “could restore many people’s lives to a semblance of pre-lockdown normality.” Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said at a press conference on Wednesday that the tests could “completely transform what we can do.”

How does it work? The device “looks like a pregnancy test,” says The Guardian, whereby the test taker pricks a finger to release a drop of blood: What the device identifies is the presence of immunoglobulin M (IgM) and immunoglobulin G (IgG), which indicate that the body has activated against the infection. It would help not only people at home but also medical professionals with symptoms they suspect to be related to COVID-19; the quicker they can rule it out, the quicker they can get back to work. The U.K. government bought 3.5 million tests and has more on the way. “The key thing for us to do is evaluate — are these tests accurate enough to be used by the general public?” Whitty said.


Shutting Out Coronavirus

Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Liquor distillers and carmakers are switching gears to join the fight against COVID-19 — now so are manufacturers of hockey gear. The hockey equipment maker Bauer said this week that it had gotten authorization from the Canadian government to produce protective gear for medical workers battling the pandemic.

Why does it matter? “We say we're a protective company,” said Dan Bourgeois, Bauer’s vice president of product innovation. “Then why aren't we starting to [make] protection for our doctors, nurses, hospitals, and their needs?”

How does it work? At facilities in both Quebec and New York state, the company is making full-face, single-use plastic visors that can be worn by doctors and nurses as they treat patients with COVID-19; Bauer is also looking at developing a version that can be reused after being disinfected. The company is hoping to produce 500,000 units.



Supercharging Drug Development

What is it? Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory used Summit — the world’s fastest and most powerful supercomputer — to identify promising small-molecule drug compounds that could be enlisted in the fight against coronavirus.

Why does it matter? Computers and artificial intelligence are an increasingly popular means of drug development: Researchers can tell the machines what kinds of properties they’re seeking (for instance, powerful antibiotic capabilities) and the machines can scan through existing libraries of molecules and/or perform simulations to return potential hits. “Summit was needed to rapidly get the simulation results we needed,” said Jeremy Smith, co-author of a new paper published on ChemRxiv. “It took us a day or two whereas it would have taken months on a normal computer.” He’s hopeful, he added, “that our computational findings will both inform future studies and provide a framework that experimentalists will use to further investigate these compounds.”

How does it work? Smith and his co-author performed simulations with more than 8,000 compounds, examining each for its potential to bind with the main spike protein, or S-protein, of the coronavirus, which helps the virus infect host cells — a drug compound that binds with the protein could block infection. They ranked the most promising results, ending up with 77 small-molecule drug compounds potentially worthy of further study.


Low-Cost Ventilator

This shows the setup used for preliminary testing of an earlier version of the low-cost prototype design that could provide rapid deployment to hospitals facing shortages of the vital equipment. Image and caption credit: MIT.

What is it? Doctors, hospitals, public health officials and manufacturers are all responding to a shortage of ventilators needed to help COVID-19 patients breathe. So is a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that’s working on developing a “safe, inexpensive alternative for emergency use” that could be “built quickly around the world.”

Why does it matter? The MIT team is trying to develop a cheaper ventilator alternative that could be created out of available materials. Work on the device actually began a decade ago when an MIT class designed a simple ventilator that could be created for about $100. Today’s team, called MIT E-Vent (for emergency ventilator), has dusted off those plans and seeks to bring them to fruition. 

How does it work? The key is a handheld resuscitation device called an Ambu bag, which is typically squeezed by emergency personnel to get air into patients’ lungs; with the E-Vent, a mechanical device does the squeezing. The team developing the technology is developing “minimum clinical functional requirements” for the device to be use safely and effectively, and is sharing its progress with other clinical-engineering teams on a website,


One-Stop Shop

The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset makes tens of thousands of scientific papers available that relate to COVID and coronavirus; it's searchable and updated weekly. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers studying the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, now have an enormous trove of information at their fingertips: the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, a collection of more than 44,000 research papers compiled at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Why does it matter? As scientists rush to understand the coronavirus in hopes of stopping its spread, according to the MIT Technology Review, the database “not only helps them consolidate existing research in one place but also makes the body of literature easier to mine for insights with natural-language processing algorithms.”

How does it work? The database is hosted on the Semantic Scholar website, overseen by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and it’s updated weekly as more articles come online from peer-reviewed scientific journals and sources such as bioRxiv and medRxiv, where scientists can pre-publish papers that haven’t yet undergone peer review. Researchers using the searchable database can create personalized news feeds based on their specific areas of study."