17 tech innovations that could help ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions

With the right technology, we can continue to "flatten the curve," even as we venture out of our homes.

17 tech innovations that could help ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions
  • We're eager to return to "normal," but authorities are understandably wary about lifting lockdown restrictions while a vaccine and effective treatment for COVID-19 continue to elude us.
  • Innovators and tech companies are stepping up with new solutions as well as repurposing existing tech to help ease lockdown restrictions.
  • Technologies already in use include those for protecting and empowering healthcare workers, tracking the movement of the virus, testing people on a massive scale, and disinfecting public spaces.

The novel coronavirus has pushed half the population of the world into lockdown, disrupted studies for millions of students, destroyed unknown number of businesses, and slowed down the global economy.

Everyone is eager to return to "normal," but governments and public health authorities are understandably nervous about lifting lockdown restrictions while a vaccine and effective treatment for COVID-19 continue to elude us.

The disease has caused over 207,000 deaths worldwide, and a second wave has already hit Asian countries that were first to emerge from lockdown. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, predicts that a second wave will hit the U.S. in November, and a leading epidemiologist warned we'll face a cycle of lockdown and release every three months or so until we develop a vaccine.

With spring 2020 giving way to summer, and much of the world beginning to slowly ease up on restrictions, what's next? What will be "the new normal" as we leave our homes while continuing to flatten the curve?

At this point, like so much else, it's a big unknown. Until we can cure or prevent COVID-19 for good, innovators and tech companies are stepping up with new solutions and also repurposing existing tech to help ease restrictions.

Here are a few of the most promising innovations that are already in motion.

Improving healthcare provision through technology

One of the most pressing imperatives is to relieve the pressure on health workers so that the system as a whole doesn't collapse, as it did in Spain and Italy, causing the highest death rates in the world. We need to help healthcare workers manage their workloads and improve healthcare delivery so that everyone receives the care they need, from the sickest on ventilators in the ICU, to the physically healthy at home with mental health issues.

Telemedicine platforms like Telehealer help deliver healthcare remotely, alongside remote monitoring solutions like Resmetrix, which tracks, records, and sends vital health information to medical professionals. A similar system, Biofourmis, also analyzes this data to predict a patient's condition before it worsens. ResApp Health developed an app that can diagnose different respiratory diseases by listening to the user's cough. These tools keep people out of hospitals for longer, easing demand for hospital beds, and allowing healthcare staff to check patient health metrics at a distance.

Mental health chatbots fill a vital role assessing emotional well-being needs and simply making conversation to help reduce anxiety in people affected by fear of coronavirus.

A mixed reality dashboard


Holo4Triage makes mixed reality glasses for healthcare workers on the front line. These deliver step by step assistance for healthcare workers, guiding them through the process of identifying patients and processing patient details. The glasses sync in real time with the hospital IT system to share updates about currently-available resources.

There's also a crucial need for a steady stream of medical equipment and PPE to enable healthcare systems to deliver vital care. Automakers such as Tesla, Ford, and GM are retooling parts and altering manufacturing lines to create ventilators out of car parts. Companies and private individuals with 3D printers are printing advanced masks, face shields, and ventilator components. The 3D Systems team in the UK has called on anyone with engineering expertise or a 3D printer to help them print ventilator parts on demand.

Using tech to track the spread of infection

Better data enables health authorities to understand how the coronavirus spreads, its incubation period, and which are the most-affected areas, so that they can make the right decisions about when, where, and how fast to raise restrictions. Improved data and data sharing also reveals which restrictions are the most effective.

A number of countries are using surveillance apps to track citizens' movements and to identify and notify people who come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. The same apps can be used to ensure that people placed under quarantine follow the rules of self-isolation correctly. South Korea and Hong Kong have taken the concept a step further by experimenting with smart wristbands that perform the same task, although human rights and privacy concerns prevent South Korea from making them obligatory.

Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing

Data gathering and analysis apps like EpiMetrics help by tracking outbreaks in real time and creating a map that charts the spread of disease. Sickweather similarly aggregates social media data, crowd-sourced data, third-party sales, and clinical and demographic information to create real-time health maps that support the early prediction of outbreaks and guide authorities to high-risk zones.

Speeding up diagnostics with apps and tech interfaces

Faster diagnosis helps slow the spread of infection, while remote diagnostic tools protect healthcare workers who would otherwise have to be dangerously close to infected individuals in order to perform a swab, check temperature, etc.

Thermal cameras that can identify individuals with high temperatures out of a crowd are popular for fever detection, although opinion is divided about how effective they are. In Israel, one team is modifying a battlefield radar for use measuring heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature from a distance.

The Symptomate app


Digital health company Infermedica produced a free COVID-19 Risk Assessment Tool that can be deployed as a widget on any platform, website, or app, including its Symptomate app. The easy-to-use diagnostic tool is available in over 20 languages, applying a triage-oriented method to assess the user's health situation regarding COVID-19. It's based on WHO guidelines, as interpreted by an expert team of doctors, to help people who suspect they may have COVID-19 to decide whether they need to contact their doctor or remain at home. Already adopted by the Ukranian and Polish health authorities, the Infermedica tool eases pressure on healthcare providers and cuts confusion among patients about what to do next.

Autonomous disinfection and sanitization 

While there's still debate about the main vectors of infection for the coronavirus, we know that it can linger in the air and on surfaces for significant lengths of time.

This makes autonomous and robotic disinfection and sanitization solutions like EVA Robot and Aziobot extremely important in helping to slow the spread of infection.

Disinfecting public transport in Tehran

Fars News Agency

Disinfection and sanitization bots can clean pavements and surfaces on public transport, and they're likewise valuable in indoor places that have a high number of cases, like some industrial plants. In a similar vein, a company in India is among those producing autonomous disinfection chambers, which help quickly disinfect individuals exposed to coronavirus, such as paramedics and front-line healthcare workers.

Technology can free us from lockdown

It's almost inevitable that some restrictions will be with us for another 18 months or so until we have a vaccine or viable treatment for COVID-19. So it's reassuring to know that with the help of new technology, we won't need to spend it all indoors.

Improving healthcare provision, speeding up diagnostics, gathering and analyzing data to track spread of infection, and streamlining disinfection can aid in lifting restrictions, making life in the shadow of corona more pleasant and less anxious for everyone.

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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
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