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[MANILA] While the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) necessitated postponement of celebrations for the first World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development in Paris on 4 March, a range of engineering innovations are now being brought to bear on the virus.

“[The event] is an opportunity to celebrate engineering and its vital role in delivering sustainable development worldwide, and champion the next generation of innovators,” said Gong Ke, president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, in a statement on the celebration of World Engineering Day.

“Engineers are the world’s problem solvers, yet engineering is often overlooked or under-appreciated as providing the solution to major challenges such as climate change, digitalisation and food security,” he said.

“Engineers are the world’s problem solvers, yet engineering is often overlooked or under-appreciated as providing the solution to major challenges such as climate change, digitalisation and food security”

Gong Ke, World Federation of Engineering Organisations

Robotics have been deployed in countries across the globe to sanitise hospitals, some of which use ultraviolet radiation to minimise health workers’ exposure to the virus. In China, ground zero of the viral outbreak, robots are being used in hospitals to deliver food and medication,  take patients’ temperatures and sterilise rooms. Drones are deployed to transport supplies, spray disinfectants and do thermal imaging. Police officers wear smart helmets with facial recognition technology and infrared cameras that automatically reads body temperature.

UVD robots-main

Robots that use ultraviolet technology to sanitise areas have been deployed in countries across the globe to minimise the exposure of patients and health workers to COVID-19. Image credit: UVD Robots.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also being used to  diagnose COVID-19 infection. ‘Infervision’, software that automatically detects symptoms associated with COVID-19 on CT scan images, makes diagnosis quicker and reduces human error. “This system helps doctors save valuable time and increase accuracy of judgment,” says Ming-Ming Cheng, professor, College of Computer Science, Nankai University, China.

Innovations are not just limited to robotics and diagnostics. Data science is also contributing to the efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Johns Hopkins University has a global map showing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the world based on official reports. Healthmap, an initiative of organisations such as Harvard Medical SchoolBoston Children’s Hospital and Northeastern University, takes a similar approach, although it also factors in social media posts when data mining. Event Horizon features a mathematical model that projects where the virus may spread based on international flight routes.  

COVID-19 confirmed cases as of 29 Feb'

Confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 29 February. Image credit: Metropolitan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Data can help in managing population movement and contact and detect and quickly isolate sources. Big data and information engineers have been playing an important role in this regard,” Gong says in an interview with SciDev.Net.

Gong says that engineers are now working with scientists and doctors to develop a more efficient and convenient method for COVID-19 testing, as well as in testing drugs that can potentially be used to treat COVID-19.

Collaboration was also emphasised by Kathy Renzetti, executive director of the US-based non-profit DiscoverE,  in her statement on the celebration of World Engineering Day. “Solving the world’s problems is an enormous collaborative undertaking involving both the public and private sectors and extending across disciplines, borders and demographics.”

The Internet has made collaboration significantly easier among key players. The sequencing done by Chinese scientists which was made publicly available just weeks after the outbreak in Wuhan is now being studied by medical researchers and doctors in a bid to develop drugs against COVID-19.

Other researchers have also made their work publicly available online to make it easily accessible to the scientific community. One example is, a free online database which features information on existing compounds that may potentially be used for the treatment of COVID-19.

“It takes time to develop drugs against COVID-19. However, [the] drug-repositioning approach will shorten it,” explains Denis Kainov, associate professor, department of clinical and molecular medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.