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COVID-19-Fighting Tools

Innovators aren’t holding their breath for a vaccine — they’re tackling the biggest health crisis in a century on several fronts

By Niall McKenna

September 17, 2020 •

Remember those health experts telling us we’d be “in it for the long haul”? It was hard to fathom exactly what that would mean. But now weeks have turned into months of working from home (if we’re lucky), wearing masks and physically distancing from each other. It’s clear COVID-19 isn’t the temporary houseguest we’d hoped for. It’ll be woven into everything we do for the foreseeable future.

University of Alberta grads who own businesses and do research have refocused to help those most affected by the pandemic. Here are four ways they’re doing it.

 1: They’re shifting their businesses to help the most vulnerable. 

While studying nutrition, Morgan Allen, ’19 BSc(Nutr/Food), learned that food is more than just what you put in your body. “People have different relationships with food. Food can interact with so many areas of our life and how we perceive ourselves and how we interact with our culture,” she told The Line, a University of Alberta Alumni podcast. Allen is the Edmonton lead of Fresh Routes, a mobile grocery store in Edmonton that sells affordable produce in neighbourhoods with limited access to supermarkets. When the pandemic forced the closure of Fresh Routes’ markets, Allen and her team heard from customers who were struggling to get food. “So we had to reimagine what our services were going to look like.” With the help of volunteers and donors, the team started delivering food hampers — often free of charge — directly to families in need. 

For Haidong Liang, ’14 PhD, thoughts of his elderly parents in China were never far from his mind after he moved to Canada for university. Hearing of the difficulties they encountered staying active, Liang was inspired to study gerontology and leisure. He is now executive director of the Westend Seniors Activity Centre in Edmonton and knows many of his clients are struggling to stay active after being shut in by the pandemic. So, he created an eight-week fitness program, complete with a 20-page guide and instructional videos. “Stay active, stay positive,” Liang says in his first video. “And also don’t forget: Keeping active never grows old.”

2: They’re getting the latest research to patients and parents as soon as possible.

 Shannon Scott, ’06 PhD, started her career as a pediatric nurse and saw first-hand how important it was for parents to prepare and reassure their children when going to a clinic or hospital — a stressful experience for kids. When COVID-19 put hospitals on high alert, Scott — who holds a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair for Knowledge Translation in Child Health at the U of A — wanted parents to be ready to cope with the added stress COVID-19 protocols bring. She and Lisa Hartling, ’90 BSc(PT), ’10PhD — who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Knowledge Synthesis and Translation — developed an infographic, a video and other tools so parents will know what to expect and feel confident when they take their children to an emergency room. The research was made possible by WCHRI and the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation's Stollery Science Lab program. While a vaccine for the virus may be months or even years away, Scott and Hartling hope their work can inoculate the public against the rapid spread of pandemic misinformation.

3: They’re finding new ways to protect front-line health workers and the public. 

As COVID-19 cases surged, so did worries about shortages of personal protective equipment. When product-development centre ACAMP got the idea to design and manufacture protective masks right in Alberta, it turned to the Faculty of Engineering’s Warren Finlay, ’83 BSc(ElecEng), ’84 MSc, a Canada Research Chair in Aerosol Mechanics, expert in the movement of airborne particles. In just a matter of weeks, Finlay and his colleagues, including Andrew Martin, ’02 BSc(EngPhys), ’04 MSc, ’08 PhD, and Jason Olfert, ’01 BSc(MechEng), ’03 MSc, brought together personnel and scientific equipment to support ACAMP in their development of a market-ready face mask that’s on par with the commonly used N95 mask. 

Hyo-Jick Choi, one of Finlay’s colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering, took another approach by coating existing face masks in sodium chloride. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that  causes the disease, can live for hours or even days on some objects. Choi and his colleagues found that by coating masks in salt, which is known to kill many kinds of viruses and bacteria, they could build an extra layer of defence. Choi expects the masks to be ready for distribution by 2021. He says the team also has other antimicrobial face mask technologies  in development.

Salt is also the secret ingredient that Brayden Whitlock, ’13 BSc(Hons), and his business partner Matt Hodgson, ’13 BCom, ’17 MBA, are using to create door handles and handrails that could kill most influenza viruses and other germs within minutes. The pair’s company, Outbreaker Solutions, is working with U of A researchers to investigate the virus-destroying effects of their compressed salt product against SARS-CoV-2 virus. The team is also undertaking research on noroviruses, as well as other enteric and respiratory virusesThe company is already manufacturing door push plates and levers and is looking for business partners to make even more surfaces.

4: They’re using artificial intelligence to detect and treat the virus. 

Health experts say widespread testing is key to reopen our economies safely. But the test for COVID-19, which involves a throat swab or nasal swab, can be unpleasant. While swabbing is currently the only way to know for sure if you have COVID-19, Patrick Earl, ’01 BSc(Spec), ’04 MSc, and his business partner have created a free app that uses the sensors in your smartphone to detect patterns of breathing, pupil dilation, blood oxygen and other potential physical signs of COVID-19. Right now, their app only gathers data, but Earl is working with artificial intelligence research teams to retool the app to predict whether you have the virus with 90-per-cent accuracy or more.

Artificial intelligence is also at the heart of MEDO.ai, a company started by former U of A/Alberta Innovates post-doctoral fellow Dornoosh Zonoobi and faculty member Jacob Jaremko. Along with a large team of computer and medical experts like Danesh Zonoobi, ’19 MSc, Amir Forouzandeh, ’19 MSc, Roberto Vega, ’17 MSc, and Xuebin Qin, ’20 PhD, MEDO.ai’s technology will analyze ultrasound images for complications associated with COVID-19. This will allow physicians to better manage patient care. Because the technology does not require a radiologist, diagnosis is faster and cheaper. MEDO.ai reports that its algorithms have achieved excellent results in detecting complications caused by COVID-19 in the body. The team started its pilot in Edmonton hospitals recently.

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