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Disinfection Technologies, Machine Learning And Other Engineering Solutions To COVID-19 Developed

Disinfection Technologies, Machine Learning And Other Engineering Solutions To COVID-19 Developed
Clad in protective suit, personnel of the Philippine National disinfect a passenger coach at the Tutuban station in Manila on Aug. 18, 2020 amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Photo by KJ Rosales, The Philippine STAR

While primarily a public health issue, an effective response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic requires support and collaboration from experts from different fields and disciplines.

For instance, technology has become a significant ally in the fight against the pandemic, as seen in the solutions and innovations that were developed in recent months.

One of those that took up the mantle early on was the University of the Philippines College of Engineering (UP COE), which initiated over a dozen projects to help address urgent challenges and fill in the gaps in the nationwide response to COVID-19.

Among their initiatives include 3D printing solutions for frontliners, tracking of high-risk individuals, prototype ventilators and respirators, and various disinfection technologies.

“Our college is a part of a public university, which is expected to deliver solutions for the Filipino people,” UP COE dean Ferdinand Manegdeg told The Philippine STAR. “That’s the minimum that we have to do for the Filipinos.”

When the number of cases started rising in March, Manegdeg formed a team within the college to identify possible solutions that they can develop in response to the pandemic.

“The College of Engineering is a source of solutions. What we can do is to think of certain ideas, prove that the concept will work, come up with a prototype and then test and validate it,” the dean said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“We requested our faculty to submit some projects that we can do within the period of the pandemic, those that can be easily funded and be immediately delivered to our beneficiaries,” he added.

They collaborated with the UP Manila College of Medicine to identify the immediate problems that they can provide solutions to, particularly those affecting medical frontliners in the Philippine General Hospital.

The college also reached out to alumni, through the UP Engineering Research and Development Foundation, to help raise funds to support the initiatives.

In a matter of months, the college was able to develop some prototypes that they have already deployed to some hospitals and communities in the country.

Here are some of their projects:

UV light disinfection chamber

One of the prototypes deployed by the college was the ultraviolet (UV) light chamber that can be used to disinfect personal protective equipment (PPE) used by medical frontliners.

The initiative was in response to the shortage of PPE in hospitals, especially during the first few months of the pandemic, said engineering professors and project leads Florencio Ballesteros Jr. and Eligia Clemente.

Operating on the premise that there is an urgent need for such technology, Ballesteros said they used readily available materials and relied on existing research that UV light can be used for disinfection.

But he stressed the need for a careful study and evaluation to ensure that the PPE would be thoroughly disinfected when using the chamber for materials other than PPE for which it was designed. Evaluation of the virus destructive efficiency of the UV unit was done in collaboration with the Institute of Biology of UP Diliman.

Manegdeg, who is part of the project, said they had to look at three parameters: capacity, temperature and the length of time needed for exposure to UV light to ensure proper disinfection.

Using UV light for disinfection, he said, is not as simple as directing it to an item as it would not necessarily ensure the removal of all pathogens.

The prototype disinfection chambers that the college deployed to the Philippine General Hospital, East Avenue Medical Center and provincial hospitals are only intended for coveralls and not items such as face masks, as these would require another efficiency evaluation.

Manegdeg said the technology could be used in the future to disinfect other items, but stressed that these should first undergo expert evaluation to ensure efficiency and minimize risks.

UV light, he added, should not be used for disinfecting people as it may cause rashes and other medical issues.

The college also confirmed discussions with the management of the Light Rail Transit for the possible use of UV light technology to disinfect trains and stations.

Low-cost disinfectant

Another team from the UP COE Department of Chemical Engineering, in collaboration with the UP Institute of Chemistry, developed a low-cost system that would enable communities to produce their disinfectants.

Called ChlorGen, the system only requires salt, water and electrolytes to produce hypochlorite, which can be used to disinfect offices and other facilities.

Engineering professor and project lead Joey Ocon said a unit – which costs less than P20,000 – can produce as much as 30 liters of disinfectant, depending on the concentration.

The electricity cost of producing hypochlorous acid using their system is only P1.60 per liter.

The disinfectant, he said, is compliant with the minimum concentration identified by the World Health Organization as effective for disinfection.

According to Ocon, the technology is especially useful in rural communities, where access to and supply of disinfectants such as bleach may be limited.

“Barangay halls or communities may centralize the production of disinfectant (using this system),” he said, assuring the safety of using the system.

The team plans to deploy their prototypes to some communities, although they are also looking at possible partners for its mass production.

According to Manegdeg, the college would welcome possible partnerships with companies that can mass-produce the prototypes that they developed.

For partnerships for commercial purposes, he said they would request the companies to donate the first batch of products to a chosen beneficiary and provide royalties to the college and the developers.

This, he added, would enable them to continue funding other engineering solutions for the Filipino people.

AI for drug discovery

A team led by engineering professors Arthur Gonzales and Miguel Remolona are using artificial intelligence to search for drugs that can treat COVID-19 infections.

According to Gonzales, those looking for a potential drug for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, face significant challenges, such as the limited time and resources to test every candidate manually.

 Machine learning, he said, could help address these issues as it would enable the analysis of thousands – if not millions – of compounds in a shorter period.

Using the structure-based drug discovery method, the team tested an initial 1,200 compounds to identify potential drug candidates for the viral illness.

Through computer simulation, they were able to rank the compounds that have shown potential in inhibiting the virus’ reproduction.

The top compounds could then be tested for their efficacy through clinical trials conducted by medical experts.
After the initial tests, Gonzales said they used the results of the initial tests to “teach” the machine to assess other compounds and identify more potential drug candidates.

“Even if they are not promising, the data can still be used during the machine learning stage,” he said, referring to the initial results.

“With machine learning, we can use our limited resources to screen millions… It’s a ranking tool. You still have to do the experiments. But with a more powerful ranking tool, you’d be able to get rid of false positives,” he added.

In addition to the current crisis, Gonzales said the technology could be used in case of another pandemic in the future.

“We were caught off-guard by this pandemic. Our future goal is to get ahead of the next one,” he said.