Innovation is key in battle against Covid-19

Businesses and scientists adapt and invent essential equipment and services for hospitals and communities

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" – the often-quoted words of former UK prime minister Winston Churchill when he worked to form the United Nations after the second World War. "Necessity is the mother of invention" is another saying, attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

Both expressions are appropriate now as businesses and scientists adapt and invent essential equipment and services for hospitals and communities during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The speedy response to making everything from face visors to hand sanitisers to scrubs to developing newly purposed ventilators has been impressive. And communities across Ireland – and beyond – have also sprung into action to support vulnerable groups who need medicines and food delivered to their homes as they keep their distance to protect themselves from the virus.

The window blind company which began making face visors is one striking example of how a business can transform its manufacturing process to meet a need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. The Co Derry-based company, Bloc Blinds, got permission to set up a factory floor in a sports arena so workers could abide by social distancing rules.


Face shields

Managing director of Bloc Blinds Cormac Diamond says the company began making the face shields before orders even came in. "We thought some of us need this stuff, let's do it anyway, and if it doesn't work, we'll stop it, but it's been the exact opposite."

The company quickly began supplying face visors to the health services, North and South, on a not-for-profit basis. Other companies rowed in to supply raw materials for the face shields and the firm, which aims to dispatch half a million visors a week, went from temporarily laying off staff to recruiting more.

Designers in third-level research centres – including University of Limerick, University College Dublin and Institute of Technology in Carlow – have also been making face visors using 3D printing technologies during the Covid-19 pandemic. These face visors have been donated to local healthcare workers.

Hand sanitiser

Whiskey and gin distillers across Ireland also joined the fight against Covid-19 by producing hand sanitiser. Early on in the spread of this new coronavirus, public health doctors across the world advised everyone that thorough hand washing – and, failing that, regular use of alcohol-based hand sanitiser – was one of the strongest ways to protect ourselves from catching Covid-19.

So companies such as the Listoke Distillery and Gin School in Monasterboice, Drogheda, Co Louth, produced a 72 per cent alcohol-based hand sanitiser as stocks ran low in shops. The company sells 250ml bottles at cost price online and also supplies many essential services with hand sanitiser.

Bronagh Conlon, co-founder of the Listoke Distillery, says her previous experience of having cancer and the number of people she knew who were at a high risk of catching the virus prompted her actions. "We are also giving thousands of litres of the product free to the Red Cross and the Army for testing centres and to other charities throughout the country," says Conlon.

Micil Distillery in Galway and Clonakilty Distillery in Co Cork are among the other distilleries who also switched to producing hand sanitiser during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Double ventilators

Possibly one of the most far-reaching innovations so far has been how researchers at National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway adapted ventilators so that they can be used for two patients at once. As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the world, the shortage of ventilators in hospitals became one of the shocking truths to emerge. And as Galway is one of the top five MedTech hubs in the world, researchers at NUI Galway were ideally placed to get to work fast.

In early April, researchers at the Inspire Team at NUI Galway shared with the world their new system which allows clinicians to safely split ventilation between two patients, while maintaining the ability to individualise the breath size and the pressure levels required by each patient. This system has been designed so that it can be replicated using medically approved ventilator equipment that already exists in most hospitals.

Tim Jones, co-founder of SymPhysis Medical at NUI Galway, says "the team came together mindful of the need for speed in developing and sharing solutions that can treat the Covid-19 pandemic. We are making our findings available to colleagues worldwide to help alleviate some of the pressure on hospitals challenged by a shortage of ventilators." Due to the speed of development of this innovation, the researchers are currently rigorously testing the full system and they will share all their findings widely as soon as they become available.

John Laffey, professor of anaesthesia at the school of medicine in NUI Galway, and a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine at Galway University Hospital, says "the idea of using a ventilator to ventilate the lungs of two patients is very much a last resort. Unfortunately, we have heard some reports of intensive care colleagues in other countries in the tragic situation of having to choose which one of two Covid-19 patients to offer ventilator support to. This innovation will change that decision from one of having to decide which patient to provide this life-supporting technology to, to allowing doctors to provide ventilatory support to both patients, buying time to source additional ventilators."

Decontaminant wipes

Non-chemical biodegradable decontaminant wipes are another important innovative material that has been made by researchers at a NUI Galway start-up company. The so-called AntiBioAgent Decontamination (ABD) wipes made by Aquila Bioscience are being distributed to first-responders, healthcare workers and postal workers to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Prof Lokesh Joshi, the founder of Aquila Bioscience and vice-president for research and innovation at NUI Galway, says, "It was pioneering work done with the Defence Forces Ordnance Corps in countering biological pathogens that led to the development of the ABDs, and the hope is by now putting these in the hands of frontline workers, it will allow them to more effectively protect themselves and the people they're helping in the fight against coronavirus."

Prof Joshi adds, “As we ramp up our production over the coming weeks we’ll be better able to supply some of the international agencies currently seeking our help in the struggle in their countries, and make this new technology part of the global fight against Covid-19.”

Research funding

As third-level institutions around the country and the world turn toward the virus, funding for 26 Covid-19 research projects has been backed by the Government.

Environment & Science Editor Kevin O'Sullivan reported that the most advanced work will track Covid-19 genetics, better diagnostics, development of antiviral treatments and vaccines, healthcare, infection control, contact tracing, mental health and social distancing. One of five UCD-led projects is to develop and supply necessary reagents and materials for Sars-CoV-2 testing for hospitals in the Ireland East Hospital Group. It was awarded €540,000 – the highest-funded project.

Monitoring device

Many innovations in the battle against Covid-19 have been many years in development. For PMD Solutions, makers of RespiraSense, the current pandemic has been the catalyst that has propelled it centre stage nine years after its founder Myles Murray first began working on the idea in Cork Institute of Technology.

Now being used to treat coronavirus patients at Dublin’s Beaumont Hospital, RespiraSense is a remote respiratory monitoring device that can detect a change in someone’s condition before it becomes a problem. The technology measures the mechanics of thoracic and abdominal breathing patterns to identify deteriorating trends.

“It allows doctors to look at groups of people and quickly determine those likely to be suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, allowing them to use their limited resources better throughout the health system,” says Murray.