Science innovation around COVID-19 beyond the virus

July 21, 2020

From masks to face shields, online learning to mental health evaluation, Australian university science is stepping up to the broad range of challenges COVID-19 has presented.

Image: UniSA / Flinders

Testing protective equipment

 Testing will take place at Flinders Tonsley site, and at the University of South Australia Future Industries Institute at Mawson Lakes. 

“This both improves our capacity to respond to immediate demands due to COVID-19, and also provides new opportunities that will support the long-term viability of manufacturing businesses in South Australia,” says Professor Emily Hilder, who is Director of the UniSA Future Industries Institute. 

Adelaide packing company Detmold is manufacturing more than 20 million respirator and surgical masks per month for local and national markets. “In order to protect our vital hospital staff, face masks have to meet rigorous standards – they need to filter out bacteria, resist blood, withstand wear and tear, and yet still be easy to breathe through,” says Professor Karen Reynolds, Dean (Research) College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University.

University of South Australia’s A/Prof Colin Hall and Senior Research Fellow
Dr Christiane Schulz.

Surveying mental health

Professor Susan Rossell from Swinburne University is conducting a monthly survey of the mental health and wellbeing of Australians in the face of COVID-19, which will tell researchers what is causing most stress – finances, family or friends.

Dr Stan Steindl from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology is co-lead on an international consortium looking at the psychological effects of COVID-19 in 18 countries, and how compassion can help reduce pandemic-related stress.

Responding in regional areas 

Charles Sturt University established an internal fund for research projects that could achieve fast outcomes and improve our understanding of the impacts of COVID-19 on regional communities. Funded projects include research into the effects of chronic exercise on mitigating viral infection, and how culturally and linguistically diverse people in rural areas were impacted by racism related to COVID-19. Research led by Prof Jade Forwood investigating the structural binding relationships of virus proteins to novel therapeutic targets was also fast-tracked.

Making masks 

The University of Western Australia teamed up with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to manufacture 10,000 face shields for WA health workers. At the Australian National University, quantum physicist Dr John Debs mobilised the university’s Maker Space community to produce 17,000 plastic face shields, along with utility masks for general practitioners and other medical workers in the ACT and NSW.

Helping home education thrive 

The Science Faculty at the University of Western Australia created a website with online learning resources to support teachers, students and parents. Griffith University teaching staff set up weekly STEM challenges for students in Years 5–12 designed to be completed with materials and resources students had at home.

Protecting us in the future

Macquarie University’s Honorary Associate Professor Denis Bauer and colleagues at CSIRO used complex algorithms to compare genomes of more than 180 separate genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from around the world. The data shows how the virus is mutating, and how different the individual isolates are from each other. The team has identified the most common virus strains, and therefore the best candidates to choose for testing vaccines. The team is now working with international collaborators to capture clinical data in a secure interoperable way to monitor emerging strains that might cause more severe disease.

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