Higher Education Research Activity in response to COVID-19
By Maura O'Shea
Posted: 27 May, 2020
In response to the pandemic, researchers right across higher education and all disciplines have self-mobilised to re-direct research activity toward the national response to COVID-19. The current situation has brought to light very many examples of relevant research being undertaken in higher education. Research projects already underway have been re-purposed to solve multiple challenges arising: the stories below demonstrating, as well naturally as health and medical research, the role of ICT research, psychology, law, and many other disciplines, in Ireland’s COVID-19 response. This highlights the value of the broad-based research which is underpinned by the core investment in our higher education sector and which provides the bedrock of Ireland’s public research system.
University of Limerick
The University of Limerick has launched a new study to explore how children, teenagers and their families are coping during the health crisis. The study, entitled Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children during Epidemics), will focus on those aged 4 – 18 years and their families. The researchers aim to track children and young people’s mental health throughout the COVID-19 crisis to identify what advice, support and help can actually protect their mental health. https://www.ul.ie/news-centre/news/university-limerick-study-examine-mental-health-effects-%E2%80%98lockdown-life%E2%80%99-during
The University of Limerick and University of Gloucestershire has launched a research project to understand and track the wellbeing of frontline key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers are looking for people across the UK and Ireland, that are currently deployed in frontline key worker positions, to take part in the longitudinal survey. They want to hear from anyone who is working on the frontline, from hospitals to supermarkets, to understand how the impact of being a key worker affects their wellbeing over time. The questionnaire asks about how these workers feel about the pandemic, and how their wellbeing might be impacted by the increasing strain on their reserves. It asks about how they cope, what their approaches are to helping others, and how they feel about government strategies to deal with the various issues posed by the pandemic.
An important part of the study will be to see if there are any differences between the two countries in terms of how frontline workers are coping with increased demands on their personal resources. With markedly different strategies to deal with the pandemic, data from the two countries will provide an interesting case study into how national policy may impact frontline worker wellbeing during times of crisis. https://www.ul.ie/covid-research
The UL Critical Operations Team & Executive Committee (COTEC) has created a UL COVID Action group to coordinate the activities in progress and emerging across campus in response to the COVID-
19 pandemic. The COVID Action Group is under the supervision of UL Vice President Research Professor Norelee Kennedy. https://www.ul.ie/covid-home/cotec-action-group
Limerick Institute of Technology
Enterprises based Limerick Institute of Technology’s incubation centres are also playing their part. On its Moylish campus, Thomondgate Whiskey is pivoting to develop sanitiser. At its Clonmel centre, A&C Chemicals are also making sanitiser, while Advanced Plasma Tech is working in the supply-chain of ventilators, as well as on a sterilisation project with Queens University Belfast. Also, Health and Fitness Ireland are working with the HSE to develop programmes supporting mental health and wellbeing. https://lit.ie/rdi/innovation/centres.
University College Cork
University College Cork University College Cork (UCC) has established an interdisciplinary Covid-19 Research team that has seen over 100 researchers across all disciplines answer a call to action. Research projects have been initiated that include the search for new treatments for Covid-19, new methods for detection of the virus, and analysis of the data and trends. The HRB Clinical Research facility (CRF-C) at UCC has already initiated a registry of COVID-19 patients as part of an international cohort study. CRF-C are also at advanced stages of governance on starting REMAP-CAP clinical trial. This is an international multicentre regulated trial, which offers additional medicines to treat COVID-19 patients in intensive care. In addition, CRF-C plan to participate in the WHO Solidarity study, an international multicentre regulated trial offering additional medicines to treat all hospitalised COVID-19 patients. https://www.ucc.ie/en/news/covid-19-research-team-established-at-ucc.html
UCC’s COVID-19 Remote Early Warning System (CREW) is a quarantine management platform that will allow the remote identification of healthcare staff who may be developing a temperature that may be symptomatic of COVID-19 and who therefore should not present to work. CREW combines existing technologies in an innovative way to allow remote continuous monitoring of healthcare workers to ensure early and reliable detection of a temperature, an early sign of COVID-19 infection. The system architecture consists of:
– A wearable digital thermometer to measure body temperature.
– A sensor platform e.g. smartphone, smartwatch or wearable IoT device.
– A monitoring platform on which to receive information from the devices.
A major impediment to processing COVID-18 samples has been the scarcity of reagents needed to perform the diagnostic tests. Labs across the country in higher education institutions have rallied to produce lysis buffer, an essential solution required to extract the viral particles to enable analysis. The University College Cork School of Microbiology has been working with the Academy of Clinical Science & Laboratory Medicine in Dublin to develop alternative key reagents to replace the commercial reagents used for COVID-19 that are in short supply. School staff have liaised with international colleagues and rapidly sourced a validated open-source detection protocol for COVID-19 and provided
it to the Cork University Hospital (CUH) diagnostic lab. Two School staff led by Dr Martina Scallan and Dr John McSharry and supported by STO Dr John O’Callaghan, have developed an alternative lysis buffer for covid19 testing that has been successfully validated in the CUH diagnostic lab side by side with the current commercial kit.
UCC’s Dr Jennifer Grant is involved in a multi-jurisdictional project looking at country legislative responses to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic as it relates to insolvency and restructuring law, as well as tangential areas such as employment and finance.
The University’s Prof Cora O’Neill has retargeted research to Covid-19 due to its predominant impact on the elderly health and people living with dementia – relevant research is in the area of Alzheimer’s/ dementia and related brain degenerative disease of ageing.
University College Cork’s Prof Ursula Kilkelly, School of Law, together with Prof Laura Lundy Queens University Belfast, are developing research to explore children’s rights and COVID-19 in a policy context.
Cork Institute of Technology and Tralee Institute of Technology
Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and Institute of Technology Tralee (IT Tralee) are making all necessary supports available to Public Health and State agencies in the South West, and wider Munster Region, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specific resources on call include relevant scientific, nursing, and technical resources, including personnel and scientific supplies and services, administrative support and buildings and physical resources in the Kerry and Cork campuses. http://www.ittralee.ie/en/InformationAbout/NewsandEvents/News/MainContent,62010,en.html
NUI Galway has developed a new Irish-manufactured decontamination wipe that can help prevent the spread of coronavirus by significantly reducing or preventing the transmission of a pathogen or virus. The Anti-Bioagent Wipe (ABwipe) is the result of a five-year project involving members of the military’s Ordnance Corps and Aquila Bioscience, an Irish biotechnology company that is based at NUI Galway. Ordnance Corps personnel have been taking an active part in designing the concept and in product trials.
The wipe has been developed to save the lives of first responders and emergency workers, whether they are in the military or civilians and the first consignment has already been delivered to the Irish Defences Forces. Many existing decontamination solutions contain chemicals that can prove to be harmful to the skin, health of the user and to the environment. But ABwipes do not contain harmful elements. And they can be used on skin and on sensitive areas of the body, such as the eyes, nose and mouth. https://www.nuigalway.ie/about-us/news-and-events/news-archive/2020/march/nui-galway-spin-out-aquila-and-irish-defence-forces-develop-novel-decontamination-wipe-to-prevent-spread-of-covid-19–1.html
The NUI Galway COVID Response Team is a not-for-profit team of engineers, medical doctors, students and innovators established with the sole purpose of developing a new, open-source, simplified ventilator which could be rapidly introduced to hospitals worldwide by local healthcare services. The University’s VentShare team has been tasked with investigating a safer way to ventilate multiple patients from a single ventilator. The team is led by Tim Jones & Jack Connolly (Engineering) and Dr David Hannon & Professor John Laffey (Critical Care) with technical support from Aerogen.
The NUI Galway Inspire initiative is designed to deliver fast-to-clinic medical devices to support the COVID-19 effort. The Inspire team is composed of over 30 clinicians, medical physicists, engineers and other healthcare staff from UHG, NUI Galway and the local Medtech industry. The team are addressing topics ranging from infection control to improving oxygen delivery to critically ill patients.
In addition to www.covidmedsupply.org, Prof Derek O’Keeffe from NUI Galway with Dr Kevin Johnson from UL have created a new website www.MyCovidSymptoms.ie which is a research application tool to quickly and easily track the spread of COVID-19 by gathering anonymous symptom data. This means that we can more accurately estimate the prevalence of COVID-19 infections and help authorities make timely, data-driven decisions about protective measures. The Symptom Checker gathers academic research information about the clinical presentation of COVID-19. This system is not intended for the diagnosis or treatment of disease or other conditions, including COVID-19. All of the collected research data is anonymous. This research project was made possible through an academic partnership of the NUI Galway with University of Limerick and Orreco. The aggregate anonymous data will be provided to the Irish health authorities to help with their planning and will be used in research by NUI Galway to help prevent and mitigate future pandemics.
Professor Pat Dolan NUI Galway Institute for Lifecourse and Society and UNESCO Chair for Youth Civic Engagement is co-leading an International Global Youth Response to COVID-19 on how empathy, kindness and compassion are key to limiting suffering, protecting the vulnerable, and quickly recovering in the aftermath of the crisis.
Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology
GMIT’s Medical Engineering Technology Gateway researchers to build face visors using an open source design and the Centre’s 3D printers. Galway University Hospital (GUH) clinicians assisted in the evaluation process. GMIT’s MET Gateway has also lent Galway University Hospital its respiratory ventilator to assist in the treatment of COVID-19 infected patients. The ventilator is normally used in MedTech research and product development. https://www.technologygateway.ie/met-gmit-provide-a-vital-community-response-to-covid-19-outbreak/
GMIT’s Dept of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, is working with a team in the NUI Galway Lambe Institute, School of Medicine, to develop a split ventilator for use on two COVID-19 patients at once. GMIT is helping develop cross platform software that works with novel sensors to monitor the ventilator performance.
Institute of Technology Sligo
IT Sligo is running the Visor Project in response to a call from the HSE for the manufacture of face shields. The Institute’s research team reviewed the technical requirements for the face shields, researched the available open source solutions and developed a number of these designs to suit the equipment and materials available. 26 volunteers are currently working on the Visor Project: a mixture of Institute staff, undergraduate and research postgraduate students. Two types of visors are being produced and 250 in total are being produced every day. The Institute has established a daily supply of 80 visors going into the HSE. A second supply strand is being distributed directly to local nursing homes, Garda stations, GP Practices, vets, pharmacies, local ambulance services and Local uthorities. https://sosventilator.com/
A team of IT Sligo designers, engineers and scientists began to develop a number of designs for ventilators and support ventilators to suit different levels of patient needs. The team has coordinated its work with a broad national and international network, drawing on experience in countries where the Covid-19 crisis has been more advanced. The designs and prototypes in development are based on widely available components and simple control technology in order to be replicable in other locations. The Ventilator design will be up on Open-source for all to use.
Also, a sterilisation unit was manufactured on site in IT Sligo and adapted for Covid-19 use. The unit is currently located in the Sligo University Hospital ICU department to aid in the Risk prevention process. https://sosventilator.com/
Athlone Institute of Technolgy
Athlone Institute of Technology’s Applied Polymer Technology Gateway is supporting the COVID-19 response in a range of ways, including:
· The team was able to use its substantial network of suppliers when the HSE made a direct request for the manufacturer of swabs, a potential match was identified through their connections. APT also sourced a supplier of polymer sheets to manufacture the swabs.
· The APT team have also collaborated with a Medical Device company on potential suppliers for face shield material, including consultation on the design of an injection moulding machine for the production of respirators. The design team continue to support this response and are ready to offer other means of support if necessary.
· APT have worked as consultants on a task force deployed by the IDA on the manufacturing of Individual patient hoods, their work included identifying sources of RF welding and consulting on mould design for parts of a personalised hood manufacture https://www.technologygateway.ie/ait-and-apt-technology-gateway-provide-expertise-for-covid-19-response/
Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) is working with NUI Galway to explore eco-sustainable solutions to decontaminate masks. Offering protection from coronavirus, PPE needs to be carefully removed and disposed of after each use to prevent the spread of the highly infectious disease. Due to its material composition, PPE is extremely heat sensitive and not intended for reprocessing.
Conscious of this, Professor Neil J Rowan, Director of the Bioscience Research Institute at AIT, and John Laffey, Professor of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine at NUI Galway and Galway University Hospitals, are exploring ways to decontaminate PPE without destroying it. These eco-sustainable solutions, which were recently published in leading environmental journal STOTEN, harness the power of vaporised hydrogen peroxide (VH2O2) to neutralise COVID-19 and other contagions. Use of this gas has just been FDA-authorized for decontaminating N95 masks and a similar authorized approach is likely to be deployed in the Republic of Ireland. https://www.ait.ie/news-and-events/news/irish-researchers-explore-mask-decontamination-amid-global-ppe-shortage
Institute of Technology Carlow
IT Carlow’s Design+ technology gateway team has been using its skills to design and produce face shields for healthcare workers, while a pharmaceutical team has created and produced its own hand sanitiser for those on the frontline of the pandemic.
One of its product designers has come up with an in-house design for face shields such that the team are now able to produce 70 in one day and pre-cut and additional 90 for easy assembly. Separately, a team of pharmaceutical academics at the Institute has used its laboratory alcohol supply to make hand sanitiser. Again using an in-house formulation, the team has produced a 90-litre supply comprising alcohol, sunflower oil and hand soap as the key components. The 65% alcohol is slightly higher than the 60% recommended by the WHO to ensure efficacy. https://www.itcarlow.ie/news.htm/view/id/6174
Dundalk Institute of Technology
The Eastern Corridor for Medical Engineering (ECME) is an EU-supported cross-border centre located at Dundalk Institute of Technology whose mission is “to create a cross-border centre of research excellence within the field of cardiovascular medicine in particular focusing on medical grade wearables and associated remote monitoring systems”. ECME recently launched a rapid-response funding call related to Covid-19. Grant awards of up to €30,000 will be made to enterprises for projects
which support the objectives of ECME’s Covid-19 response. Challenge areas to be addressed by the call are:
§ Development of Machine Learning algorithms that can assist in COVID-19 modelling.
§ Use of clinical datasets to enhance decision making and improve patient care pathways with reference to COVID-19.
§ The design and manufacture of PPE equipment for use by front line staff in the healthcare system dealing with COVID-19 patients.
§ The development of rapid diagnostic tests for COVID-19.
§ Development of technologies aligned with the national and international requirement for additional ventilator equipment.
The closing date for the call is 24th April, and results will be issued by 7th May at the latest. https://www.ecme-research.com/mini-projects/
Letterkenny Institute of Tecnology
The Department of Science in Letterkenny IT have been working with Letterkenny University Hospital (LUH) in the production of hand sanitiser, in line with WHO guidelines, for use by staff working on the frontline. https://www.lyit.ie/News-Events/Article/lyit-proud-to-support-efforts-to-address-covid-19-challenges
Waterford Institute of Technology
The PMBRC (Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre) at Waterford Institute of Technology is supporting the labs in University Hospital Waterford in their efforts to test for COVID-19. Over the last number of weeks, PMBRC have provided chemicals, reagents and PPE to UHW staff and have offered ongoing support in terms of preparing the necessary solutions for their work. http://pmbrc.org/
Trinity College, Dublin
The Trinity COVID-19 Immunology Project builds on Trinity’s world-class Immunology expertise, accelerating research now to tackle COVID-19 and develop solutions to control the pandemic and protect communities. The Trinity COVID-19 Immunology Project is a collaborative research project with Trinity Translational Medicine Institute and is supported by the Clinical Research Facility based on the St. James’s Hospital campus. Led by Prof. Kingston Mills and Prof. Aideen Long, it involves scientists and immunologists working on basic and applied research and translational scientists and clinicians working with COVID-19 patients. The Trinity COVID-19 Immunology Project will include research on these critical areas:
· Developing new antibody tests,
· Scaling up antibody testing,
· Investigating immune response in COVID-19 patients,
· Designing new drugs and vaccines for COVID-19. https://www.tcd.ie/campaign/COVID-19-Immunology-Project/
Violet, the germ-killing robot, has been developed by Dr Conor McGinn, Akara Robotics, a spin-out of Trinity’s Robotics & Innovation Lab (the same team that created Stevie the Social Robot). Stevie was designed to help keep seniors socially connected, and to support caregivers in the delivery of group-based wellness activities.
Violet is an ultraviolet light robot, which is clinically proven to kill viruses, bacteria and harmful germs. Violet leverages more than 12 months research in UV light disinfection technology, conducted at Trinity College Dublin. The HSE have fast-tracked its development because it can greatly reduce dependency on the use of chemical-based solutions, which may be effective but require rooms to be vacated for several hours during sterilisation, making them impractical for many parts of the hospital. In addition, many pieces of high-tech equipment cannot be disinfected using “deep chemicals”, so manual cleaning is needed. Violet has already been deployed in a number of hospital settings. https://www.akara.ai/
Trinity College Dublin, through Prof. Mary Rogan, is hosting the European Research Council-funded ‘COVID19 in Prisons’ by the PRILA Project (Prisons: the rule of law; accountability and rights).
At a time of unprecedented crisis across the globe arising out of COVID-19, PRILA have called on governments and prison authorities to ensure that the health and human rights of all those in prisons are upheld. Prisons are places which are particularly vulnerable to infectious disease and no person should be left behind during this pandemic. Many prisoners have underlying health conditions, some are in older age groups, and there are pregnant women in prisons across the world. Taking urgent steps to reduce the risks arising out of COVID-19 is also necessary in the interests of the health of the broader community. https://www.tcd.ie/law/research/covid-19.php
Royal College of Surgeons
Irish medical interns already suffer significantly from burnout and stress, with 37% of those assessed experiencing psychological distress, particularly emotional exhaustion. It is reasonable to expect these levels of burnout to increase for healthcare workers entering the system, during the COVID-19 pandemic. RCSI is undertaking a significant project (D-PECS: Digitally Personalised Early Career Support) to provide digital and coaching support for 1100 medical interns entering the Irish system during the COVID-19 crisis. The RCSI-managed C3LX smart phone app in conjunction with online health coach support, will help mitigate psycho-social stress experienced by medical interns during this global crisis.
Interns will be on-boarded onto an existing digital support platform provided by American digital health company, C3LX. This smart phone application that currently supports exercise, sleep and diet-related health, will be modified to monitor burnout, as well as mental and social health. The app will also include a repository of supporting material from the RCSI Centre of Positive Psychology and Health, including an Attention-based Training (ABT) programme, already shown to limit burnout healthcare staff. Participants will be assigned an RCSI health coach for the duration of the project (12 months). The project will run from May 2020 (when medical interns are introduced into the system) until May 2021. https://www.rcsi.com/dublin/about/faculty-of-medicine-and-health-sciences/centre-for-positive-psychology-and-health
RCSI is conducting another project to determine COVID-19 infection rates in asymptomatic healthcare workers. Healthcare workers (HCWs) are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 infection. In the absence of symptoms, they are unlikely to be tested and may inadvertently spread infection to other patients and staff. RCSI’s study will involve testing for COVID-19 infection in consenting asymptomatic HCWs using exhaled breath condensate (EBC). It will recruit HCWs from both high and low exposure settings in Beaumont Hospital. HCWs will include doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, allied health professionals and other staff such as porters, catering staff and phlebotomists. The project is currently awaiting ethics approval, with recruitment and analysis expected to be completed by mid-June.
Another project being carried out by RCSI is aiming for real-time digital prediction of patient outcomes in COVID-19. This concerns the real-time smartphone-based remote systems that monitor a patient’s rate of breathing, oxygen use and oxygen levels in their blood, identifying at risk groups for disease severity in the community and within the hospital. Using this suite of app-based tools, the project is generating a scoring system that can be used to identify those patients that may deteriorate and monitor them remotely, facilitating early discharge of patients who have less severe disease and also let clinical teams know if a patient is about to become sicker. The project is currently in the ethical approval process and is expected to begin soon after.
Dublin City University
DCU’s School of Nursing is carrying out a study on “Adjusting to COVID-19: Predictive and protective factors” which aims to capture the impact of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. Furthermore, it aims to identify useful coping skills and habits for managing wellbeing, as well as potential predictors for problematic mental health during a pandemic. Findings will be used to identify useful strategies for dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty associated with a pandemic.
DCU’s School of Mathematical Science Professor Turlough Downes usually uses his modelling skills to distant star systems, but he is now helping disease experts to model the course of the Covid-19
pandemic. He has set up a collaboration with infectious disease expert Prof Sam McConkey of RCSI, to try to improve mathematical models of Covid-19 spread. They have been exploring how to refine mathematical forecasts of the viral spread, factoring fast-changing elements into the equations. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/covid-19-response-team-modellers-help-conquer-that-steep-cases-curve-1.4231805?mode=amp
DCU’s School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering of the Faculty of Computing & Engineering, & I-Form, the SFI-funded Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing, are producing PPE for frontline health staff using state-of-the-art 3D printing equipment. https://www.dcu.ie/news/news/2020/Apr/DCU-producing-face-masks-and-goggles-for-frontline-health-care-workers-state-of
Maynooth University in partnership with the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) and several other education representative bodies has undertaken extensive research of over 2,800 primary school leaders to assess their response to the closure of primary schools due to COVID-19. The research had two main objectives. Firstly, it aimed to identify good practices that can be shared and replicated around the country, in order to help schools that found it particularly challenging to adapt to the change prompted by school closures. Secondly, it aimed to establish what ‘scaffolding’ is required for schools to continue to work effectively during the temporary school closure. Findings included:
- The majority of schools interact with their students at least once a week – over 70%.
- For 80% of schools, the reason for putting distance learning provisions in place was to support pupils, but in 40% of Special schools many leaders did it mainly to support parents.
- 64% of leaders reported that the areas of the curriculum that are easier to adapt for distance learning are English, Social, Environmental and Scientific Education (SESE), Physical Education and Mathematics.
- 80% of school leaders reported that Irish is the most difficult subject to adapt for distance learning. https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/research/spotlight-research/maynooth-university-research-assesses-how-primary-schools-teachers-parents-and-pupils-are-adjusting
Maynooth University’s School of Psychology is conducting a study on loneliness and social isolation during social distancing.
University College Dublin
The team in the UCD Conway Institute Genomics Core recently worked in collaboration with the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) to obtain the genomes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the first COVID-19 patient samples in Ireland. By comparing the genetic data (or genomes) of COVID-19 samples that emerge in different parts of the world, scientists can determine the relationships between different strains of the virus and track the spread of disease outbreaks. Genome sequences can also be used to develop diagnostic tests and identify stable regions for vaccine design.
Commenting on the results, Dr Michael Carr said, “The first Irish SARS-CoV-2 genomes revealed that one was 100% identical to the original genome from Wuhan city, which surprised me as RNA viruses are notoriously variable. Others were related to a European clade from individuals with travel history to northern Italy. The genetic stability gives hope for therapeutic and prophylactic optiions
UCD’s Research Motor Neurone group led by Prof Orla Hardiman has innovated its services in collaboration with IMNDA to ensure people with MND receive 24/7 cover and home visits.
Staff across TU Dublin have formed a group to contribute to the Covid-19 response. Group members in Bolton Street are working on a protective visor design for a Laser Cutter which enables rapid production of visors with a single machine. Electronic Engineers in Kevin Street are also working on using Internet Of Things technology to assist in communication between clinical staff and inpatients with Covid-19 who are in individual rooms, thus helping to reduce the demand for PPE. Tallaght staff printed and assembled visors to help frontline staff delivering them to Tallaght University Hospital with help from An Garda Síochána.
Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Dun Laoghaire
Thinscale Technology, an incubation client at the Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Dun Laoghaire, has developed Thin Kiosk software designed to offer clients the opportunity to work remotely and securely and to ensure that previously used computers can be re-used securely.
The Covid-19 crisis has shown that many virtual private networks are vulnerable to hackers and malware. Thinscale Technology’s Thin Kiosk software offers a flexible, secure software solution for people working remotely, whether it is a desktop computer, laptop or other mobile device. Thinscale’s Remote Worker Software takes care of security concerns so that someone can continue to work in a safe environment even when operating from home.