Engineering During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Medical staff pushing a EpiShuttle patient-isolation unit
A Safe Distance: EpiGuard has seen a surge in demand for its EpiShuttle patient-isolation units during the coronavirus pandemic. The company received a US $2.7 million grant from the European Union to develop its technology.
Photo: EpiGuard

By: Amy Nordrum and Eliza Strickland

A respiratory virus named SARS-CoV-2 spread from a market in Wuhan, China, to more than 200 countries in just four months. It has infected more than 2.1 million people, causing a disease known as COVID-19 that has already killed 146,000.

The virus’s spread was unprecedented in the lives of most scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs working today—and so was their response. Computer scientists rushed to model the coronavirus’s next move, biotech entrepreneurs pivoted to develop diagnostic tests, and engineers openly shared designs for building inexpensive medical equipment. Auto factoriesautonomous shuttles, and supercomputers were repurposed to aid the global coronavirus response.

With new urgency and many people confined at home by government orders, the nature of scientific and engineering work changed in fundamental ways during the pandemic. IEEE Spectrum asked people involved in response efforts to describe that shift in their own words.

Nevan Krogan, principal investigator at the Quantitative Biosciences Institute at University of California, San Francisco:

“Twenty-two of us were of the same mindset to drop everything and focus on finding answers to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been forced to close down our labs and make rapid decisions. This has meant limiting the research to very key personnel, in shifts. We are trying what would be the best possible scenario first: find an already [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]-approved drug that would work against the virus. We are putting so much pressure on some of our equipment to get rapid results that we are running into issues. That said, our scientists are talented at troubleshooting. When it matters most, at a time of global crisis, you see who steps up to the plate.”

Maxeme Tuchman, founder and CEO of Miami-based Caribu, a platform for family video calls:

“As the CEO, my travel and speaking schedule was significantly impacted. But with the exponential increase in demand and the explosive daily use of the Caribu app, I’m glad that I’m more available to the team and my customers. The biggest technical challenge has been managing the growing user base, both in terms of system capacity scaling as well as customer support. Our company is built on very scalable technology, but this exponential growth we’ve seen has tested all of the scaling systems we had in place.”

Zhanfeng Cui, a chemical engineer at the University of Oxford, England, and codeveloper of a rapid test for the coronavirus:

“I dropped almost all other research and focused on the rapid detection of COVID-19. I felt that I must contribute something. As an engineer, solving problems is my duty! Our work started in January 2020 by a group of OSCAR (Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research) collaborators. They got stuck and could not return to China. We had an interdisciplinary team and research funds readily accessible, so we could respond quickly. Our main challenge has been [getting] access to clinical samples for testing our ideas and devices.”

Ellen Cathrine Andersen, CEO of EpiGuard, based in Oslo, maker of the EpiShuttle patient-isolation system:

“Demand for the EpiShuttle increased 18-fold [in early March]. We have ramped up our production to the maximum. We conduct most of our training over conference calls. The uncertainty regarding lockdown, business, and trade has been challenging. Our EpiShuttle consists of parts originating from all over Europe. We see there is enormous need for better transportation services for contagious patients. We hope and believe that the coronavirus crisis will result in better preparedness at all levels.”

Robert Fischetti, group leader in the X-ray Science Division at the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), in Lemont, Ill.:

“The national laboratories were created to tackle problems such as the current pandemic that are too large for any one institution. Since the outbreak, almost all of my time has gone toward helping coordinate activities at the APS related to research on proteins from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers ship their samples to us in cryogenic [vacuum flasks], and we put the samples in an automounter; the researchers remotely control the sample automounter and beamline to collect their data. Researchers using beamlines in this mode have determined structures of 6 of 28 SARS-CoV-2 proteins. The urgent need to help find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 has brought out the best in everyone.”

Eric Hobbs, CEO of cell-biology company Berkeley Lights, in Emeryville, Calif.:

“Since early February, when COVID-19 became more prevalent, we prioritized helping our customers. Among them are GenScript Biotech Corp. China and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who are actively screening patient blood samples on our Beacon system to find an antibody-based therapeutic treatment, and the University of Queensland, which is using the system to develop a vaccine component protein. One big lesson we’ve learned is that the technology we have today can really make an enormous difference in responding to pandemics like this one faster and more effectively.”

Jonathan Rothberg, founder of the biotech startup accelerator 4Catalyzer, in Guilford, Conn.:

“At the outbreak of this virus, the 4Catalyzer companies pivoted their resources to support the ‘war effort.’ I assembled a team at [the company] Homodeus and volunteers who are the best molecular biologists, data scientists, programmers, and supply-chain experts. I told them that the Chinese built a hospital in Wuhan in 10 days, so we should be able to develop and deploy a true home test for COVID-19 in that time. The team is working around the clock to accomplish that goal. Everyone is just grabbing an oar and rowing in the same direction.”

This article appears in the May 2020 print issue as “Engineering During a Pandemic.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 17 April 2020.