COVID is a worldwide problem, but innovations and advances in its treatment can have impact everywhere, including Anaheim. It’s worth noting it is the private sector that is driving these innovations.
Ensuring an adequate supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a chronic difficulty for hospitals and other medical providers, where it often isn’t possible to avoid re-using PPE such as masks.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have achieved a technical breakthrough using ultra-violet light to thoroughly disinfect PPE on a mass scale, using ultra violet light:
The system is currently in use at the hospital at the University of Chicago, and the team is working with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to certify and scale it up for wider use.
Ultraviolet C, a wavelength of light with the ability to kill germs, has emerged as the preferred solution for disinfecting personal protective equipment. But even though it is easy to deploy and widely applicable, the method is not without its drawbacks; as with any light, UV systems can cast shadows, leaving parts of surfaces in the dark.
To address this issue, Peter Eng, an experimental physicist and research professor at UChicago, designed and fabricated an N95 respirator decontamination cabinet, which features a UV lamp arrangement that eliminates shadowing and optimizes the dose to all surfaces of the mask.
The current setup can fully disinfect 180 masks per hour, and the inventors estimate a scaled-up, automated version could process up to 1,440 masks per hour—or more than 34,000 per day.
In addition to being scaled and manufactured to help ensure hospitals can safely re-use PPE – thereby easing the supply demands systemwide – this breakthrough has wider applications:
“It’s a process that I can easily imagine in a factory,” said Eng, who used to work on a packaging line at a food supply company. Still, backed with published articles and measurements of the actual system, he said the numbers speak for themselves: “That makes me feel like I can sleep. It also lets people make their own decisions—I’m not giving you advice, I’m giving you the source of information.”
It goes without saying this innovation will likely generate make money for the inventors and their investors. As it should. They will benefit, as will health care professionals and the public. Researchers like Dr. Eng are motivated by more than earning a financial reward for their creativity; profit and the public good generally go hand in hand.
Another innovation being worked on (also by University of Chicago researchers) is a handheld COVID-19 testing device that costs less than $10 and can deliver results in less than 10 minutes. The device would be able to detect both whether a person is currently infected or was previously infected. At present, finding those results requires two separate tests. The research teams have to have a a prototype in a year:
Haihui Pu, a staff scientist in the Junhong Chen research group, said a home testing kit could provide peace of mind to individuals who might be concerned about the risk of exposure to the coronavirus at a testing site, as well as rapid results to those who might face a long wait or may not qualify based on their symptoms.
“Home testing offers the opportunity to carry out the self-diagnosis even with very mild symptoms or in the asymptomatic condition,” Pu said. “In addition, it is affordable at about $10 per test.” An affordable price point is critical for under-resourced and under-served populations to access the technology, he added.
To meet the high demand for testing, the researchers plan to use cost-effective technology that is sensitive, precise, reliable and able to process a lot of information quickly.
The researchers plan to create a handheld device programmed with step-by-step prompts on the LCD screen, allowing for easy use without any prior training. The device would use various specimens from patients (e.g., nasal and saliva samples) to test for both infection and antibodies.
“The existing technologies only allow for diagnosis against COVID-19 by separately detecting the presence of virus and antibodies, which also require professional training for operation and take hours to deliver the results,” said Pu.
The research team’s device, however, will detect viral particles and antibodies simultaneously.
“In order to do this,” explained Nicholas Ankenbruck, a postdoctoral researcher in the Huang lab, “we immobilize probes specific to the virus or antibodies on the surface of the device, and then monitor changes in electrical measurements in the presence of a sample.”
This combined detection is important, Ankenbruck said, because it can hint at the stage of viral infection or indicate whether the individual is unable to produce antibodies to fight the infection. In other words, people could use the testing device to track the progression of the disease from home.
For example, if a user takes the test when they first have symptoms, it may detect the virus but no antibodies. A week later, that user may detect both the virus and antibodies, suggesting their body is starting to fight off the infection. And if a user is not getting better within a reasonable time frame, they will know it’s time to call the doctor for intervention.
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These are all encouraging developments. They give hope and evidence of progress. Unfortunately, they don’t fit the prevalent doom narrative of COVID media coverage.
At the end of the day, “victory” against the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be won government agencies. Government has a key role to play, but it is private sector risk-taking and innovation, and the rapid learning and information sharing in the health care profession (complemented by common sense behavior by the public) that will turn the tide.