Since 23 March academics have been forced to change their interaction from lecture rooms, laboratories, corridors, meeting rooms and conferences to virtual tools like Campus Moodle, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft Teams, OneDrive, Panopto, Skype, Zoom, and of course, emails. Usually, working from home for a day or two can be productive, however, working from home every day, since the lockdown, has not been easy for me. I imagine many of my colleagues also miss the benefits of face-to-face interactions. We academics, therefore, urgently need a new approach to the emerging reality.
Fortunately, there are a number of funding calls for researchers these days, although they are mainly related to COVID-19. It is a significant challenge to realign one’s research area to apply for these funds during normal circumstances. But it’s even harder during a pandemic when one has little to no access to research labs or facilities. Even if the lockdown restrictions are eased in the months to come, the current pandemic-related challenges will continue for some years, and there is an opportunity to come up with solutions to these issues.
What is COVID-19 and why is it so contagious?
We may all have seen the generic structure of COVID-19. The spherical shell or envelop (with outward spikey proteins) of such virus does have a membrane which are arranged in two layers (called phospholipid bilayer). The phospholipid molecule has a head and two tails. The head loves water (i.e. hydrophilic) and the tails hate water (i.e. hydrophobic). The water-hating tails are on the interior of the membrane, and the water-loving heads point outwards, toward the fluid that surrounds the cell. When the water-loving heads which is pointed outwards sits on a surface with a conducive environmental condition, the virus is likely to survive longer on such surfaces. Any physical contact with such surfaces could infect another surface, and so on and so forth making it exceptionally contagious.
Image source - Centre of Disease Control (US)
Latest research reveals that the COVID-19 virus can live up to nine days on a surface depending on environmental conditions and surface type. A new analysis (Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1) has also found that the virus can remain viable in the air for up to three hours, on copper surfaces for up to four hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel up to 72 hours. It is also well known that it is possible for a person to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
With no vaccines or cures identified yet, the best way to combat this pandemic is through prevention, which includes disinfecting or sanitising surfaces in hospitals, ambulances, public transport, offices, homes etc. Just cleaning with water alone may not help; strong disinfectants are needed to wipe the virus away. To add to the challenge, it is difficult to quantify the cleanliness of the infected surface. Given that it’s impossible to sanitise every surface around the clock, the COVID-19 is likely to stay with us for some time.
How can researchers help?
There is a current national campaign related to additional manufacturing of traditional gloves, aprons, surgical mask and eye protection units to help frontline health and medical workers in the national effort against coronavirus and save lives.
Those in the engineering field may be able to help in the manufacturing of anti-bacterial or anti-viral surface materials, development of sustainable methods for fast cleaning of infected surfaces, digitising the cleanliness, sensors for maintaining social distancing, etc. The materials or methods developed could also be helpful to digitally sanitise used gloves, aprons, surgical mask and eye protection unit. Here the rapid digital sanitising could mean, quantifying the sanitisation process using sensor(s) which are robust and reliable.
We are on same boat for now, but there is ray of hope. Even after the vaccine is available or herd immunity is established, we may still have to change our thinking and planning process to respond to future infectious diseases (epidemics or pandemics), as failure may prove too costly.