As the COVID-19 death toll mounts and the world hangs its hopes on effective vaccines, what else can we do to save lives in this pandemic?
In UniSA’s case, design world-first technology that combines engineering, drones, cameras, and artificial intelligence to monitor people’s vital health signs remotely.
In 2020 the University of South Australia joined forces with the world’s oldest commercial drone manufacturer, Draganfly Inc, to develop technology which remotely detects the key symptoms of COVID-19 – breathing and heart rates, temperature, and blood oxygen levels.
Within months, the technology had moved from drones to security cameras and kiosks, scanning vital health signs in 15 seconds and adding social distancing software to the mix.
In September 2020, Alabama State University became the first higher education institution in the world to use the technology to spot COVID-19 symptoms in its staff and students and enforce social distancing, ensuring they had one of the lowest COVID infection rates on any US campus. ASU President, Quinton T. Ross, Jr., described the software as a “godsend”.
The collaboration between UniSA and its North American drone partner is helping to address potentially the number one threat to humanity – health security – and usher in a new era of telehealth.In this short documentary, Professor Javaan Chahl and his PhD students discuss the extraordinary journey they undertook in 2020 with this world-first technology to curb COVID-19, along with commentary from Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell and Alabama State University.
Researchers have shown how disposable face masks could be recycled to make roads, in a circular economy solution to pandemic-generated waste.
Their study shows that using the recycled face mask material to make just one kilometre of a two-lane road would use up about 3 million masks, preventing 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.
The new road-making material developed by RMIT University researchers – a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble – meets civil engineering safety standards.
Analysis shows the face masks help to add stiffness and strength to the final product, designed to be used for base layers of roads and pavements.
The study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment is the first to investigate potential civil construction applications of disposable surgical face masks.
The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated 6.8 billion disposable face masks being used across the globe each day.
First author Dr Mohammad Saberian said multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches were now needed to tackle the environmental impact of COVID-19, particularly the risks associated with the disposal of used PPE.
“This initial study looked at the feasibility of recycling single-use face masks into roads and we were thrilled to find it not only works, but also delivers real engineering benefits,” Saberian said.
“We hope this opens the door for further research, to work through ways of managing health and safety risks at scale and investigate whether other types of PPE would also be suitable for recycling.”
Making roads with masks
Roads are made of four layers: subgrade, base, sub-base and asphalt on top. All the layers must be both strong and flexible to withstand the pressures of heavy vehicles and prevent cracking.
Processed building rubble – known as recycled concrete aggregate (RCA) – can potentially be used on its own for the three base layers.
But the researchers found adding shredded face masks to RCA enhances the material while simultaneously addressing environmental challenges on two fronts: PPE disposal and construction waste.
Construction, renovation and demolition account for about half the waste produced annually worldwide, and in Australia, about 3.15 million tons of RCA is added to stockpiles each year rather than being reused.
The study identified an optimal mixture – 1% shredded face masks to 99% RCA – that delivers on strength while maintaining good cohesion between the two materials.
The mixture performs well when tested for stress, acid and water resistance, as well as strength, deformation and dynamic properties, meeting all the relevant civil engineering specifications.
While the experimental study was conducted with a small amount of unused surgical face masks, other research has investigated effective methods for disinfecting and sterilising used masks.
A comprehensive review of disinfection technologies found 99.9% of viruses could be killed with the simple “microwave method”, where masks are sprayed with an antiseptic solution then microwaved for one minute.
In related work, the RMIT researchers have also investigated the use of shredded disposable face masks as an aggregate material for making concrete, with promising preliminary findings.
Professor Jie Li leads the RMIT School of Engineering research team, which focuses on recycling and reusing waste materials for civil construction.
Li said the team was inspired to look at the feasibility of blending face masks into construction materials after seeing so many discarded masks littering their local streets.
“We know that even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or they’ll be incinerated,” he said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only created a global health and economic crisis but has also had dramatic effects on the environment.
“If we can bring circular economy thinking to this massive waste problem, we can develop the smart and sustainable solutions we need.”
‘Repurposing of COVID-19 single-use face masks for pavements base/subbase’, with co-authors RMIT Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow Shannon Kilmartin-Lynch and Research Assistant Mahdi Boroujeni, is published in Science of the Total Environment (DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.145527).
Image: Dr Daniel Watterson, Mrs Christina Henderson, Professor Paul Young, Associate Professor Keith Chappell, Professor Trent Munro.
Australia’s long history of vaccine development earned us a position at the frontline in the race against COVID-19.
The expertise embedded in Australian university science ranges from complex modelling to trailblazing in genomic mapping, protein chemistry, bioinformatics and epidemiology. So when COVID-19 spread across the globe, Australian scientists were equipped to better understand not just this virus, but also how we can protect ourselves in the future.
By June 2, 2020, the World Health Organization had identified 10 COVID-19 vaccines in clinical evaluation and a further 123 vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation.
Their vaccine shortcut uses ‘molecular clamp’ technology to trigger an immune response, research patented by UniQuest, UQ’s technology transfer company, and quickly pivoted to target COVID-19. The team is supported by University of Melbourne scientists who are running independent tests on the impact of the antibody response on the virus in cell culture.
UQ has since partnered with global biotech company CSL to manufacture the vaccine, with Phase 1 safety trials being conducted in Brisbane from early July. If successful, vaccine production will be scaled up to an extraordinary 100 million doses towards the end of 2021.
“The partnership will enable the rapid development of the vaccine candidate through clinical trials, and by investing in large-scale manufacturing capacity now, we can reduce the time needed to deliver millions of doses of the UQ vaccine to those who need them most if it proves to be safe and effective,” says CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett.
A deep repository of knowledge
A deep repository of knowledge Australia’s long history in vaccine research and the size of our research workforce are key parts of our arsenal, says microbiologist Professor James Paton, Director of the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases at University of Adelaide, and whose grandfather, Sir John Burton Cleland, was Principal Bacteriologist at the NSW Department of Health during the 1918–19 pandemic.
“Think of the human papillomavirus vaccine, Gardasil, for example, and medical technology such as Cochlear and Resmed — that’s a record of which Australian science can be justifiably proud,” he says.
With colleague Dr Mohammed Alsharifi, Paton is working on a new combination vaccine designed to simultaneously combat two deadly respiratory diseases — influenza, caused by a virus, and pneumococcal disease, caused by a common bacterium. The combination formula would overcome the limitations of the existing vaccines used for both, and the pair hopes to be conducting human trials of the pneumococcal component within 12 months.
Paton points out that in both seasonal and pandemic respiratory disease contexts, people become far more vulnerable to additional infections. Pneumococcus often ‘hangs around’ in our nose and throat without a problem – when our immune system is hammered by another illness, it can cause life-threatening bacterial pneumonia and sepsis.
Paton says the advantage of doing science research in the university sector is the cross-fertilisation of ideas. “We have access to a wider range of facilities and a critical mass of people with expertise in different areas from our own,” he says.
Shotgun approach leads to rapid research outcome
As the vaccine race kicked off, university scientists were already working to understand the evolution of the new threat. University of Sydney’s Professor Edward Holmes is an evolutionary biologist and virologist who co-authored one of the earliest descriptions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, published in February 2020 in Nature and The Lancet.
His colleague, Dr John-Sebastian Eden, says their team researches “all aspects of viral evolution in animals and humans, even in insects”. They scan pathology samples from animals using total RNA sequencing to reveal the full spectrum of microbes present, a technique called Metatranscriptomic Shotgun Sequencing.
“Sequencing doesn’t just target specific microbes; we can recover any virus or organism that’s present in the sample,” says Eden. “These powerful sequencing techniques were done on lung wash samples from some of the earliest COVID-19 patients in China.”
In this shotgun approach, all RNA sequences present in a sample are extracted and the fragments are reconstructed using powerful computers. The team then identifies the microbial life present by comparing these fragments to huge databases of known RNA, working with scientists at universities around the world to share their research via global genetic databases.
These hold billions of records of genetic sequences for organisms ranging from humans to bacteria, archaea and viruses – including more than 35,000 viral genomic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The unique facilities let scientists at Australian universities rapidly process data and keep tabs on the virus through molecular epidemiology, where samples of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA from different patients are analysed and compared with others. That lets us track the virus’ spread in the community, and work out the country of origin for various instances of COVID-19 in Australia.
“These techniques are powerful,” says Eden. “We are also developing rapid turnaround for RNA sequencing so if an outbreak of a new disease of any kind happens, sometimes within hours, we can identify a novel organism.”
Modelling the spread of the virus
Mathematical biologist Professor James McCaw, from the University of Melbourne, is working with colleagues at the Doherty Institute on the modelling that guided the national cabinet to a solid public health response.
“We’ve been working for 15 years in this space to be ready for an event like this,” he says. “We provided advice to the government in mid-January, preparing scenarios of what could eventuate based on our epidemiological understanding at the time, before there were more than one or two cases in Australia and only a few hundred recorded in China.”
This modelling prompted early and decisive government action. “We’ve been prepared and the government took it seriously from the start,” he says.
Western Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken, says Australia was in a strong position to respond through a robust public health system and an excellent scientific community.
“Our public health experts have been really astute, and our politicians are listening to them,” he says. Klinken says that crisis situations can be plagued by groupthink — where no-one queries ideas — but this has been avoided by using innovative panels with a cross-section of expertise.
“They have reached out to the university sector and brought in epidemiologists, alongside experts in the mathematical modelling of diseases, engineers and virologists, all advising on how to plan – and that’s been invaluable.”
McCaw says that unmanaged, the virus has a reproduction number (R0) around 2.5. Unchecked, it would have killed tens of thousands of Australians. “Through our public health response and the commitment of the Australian community, we avoided that disaster situation.”