Researchers Outside Medicine Have a New Focus: Covid-19

by Jason Douglas and Max Colchester, The Wall Street Journal

Engineers, physicists, volcanologists and others who never dreamed they would work on a deadly pandemic are now part of the global effort to understand and contain the coronavirus

Rajat Mittal spent a decade exploring how our larynxes generate sound and the physics behind blood flow. Now the fluid dynamics expert is wholly absorbed in a new scientific quest: to understand how droplets of moisture spread the new coronavirus from person to person.

“It seems to intersect with everything I’ve trained for all my professional life,” he said.

Researchers who never dreamed they would be working on responses to a deadly pandemic are redirecting their expertise to the global effort to understand and contain Covid-19. While virologists and epidemiologists pore over the new coronavirus and the disease itself, other experts are focused on critical questions about managing society as governments world-wide ease restrictions on daily life to revive comatose economies.

Engineers are helping public-health officials figure out how transmission of the virus can be suppressed in mass-transit systems, office blocks and theme parks. Academics who have learned how to make snap judgments on life-or-death decisions are drawing up advice for policy makers.

An algorithm tuned to air pollution is being repurposed to track social distancing. A team at the University of California, Irvine, is researching whether components from Blu-ray video players can be used as ultraviolet lasers to disinfect surfaces.

“There’s a buzz about, what can thinking minds do about it?” said Mr. Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, whose focus now is on designing more effective face masks. “How can I take what I know and turn it around and use it to attack this disease?”

The mobilization comes as restrictions on daily life ease around the globe, prodding policy makers to seek out a wider set of experts to shape the post-Covid world than the epidemiologists who have dominated so far.

“It would be nice to have a little bit more of a balanced perspective,” said Mark Birkin, co-director of the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics in the U.K., who is building a computer model that aims to show how loosening lockdown measures affects social interactions.

The new coronavirus has infected more than five million people world-wide and killed more than 340,000, according to the World Health Organization. The stringent measures restricting work and travel imposed by governments to stop its spread have cratered the global economy. The International Monetary Fund expects the world economy to contract by 3% this year, led by record-breaking falls in output in the U.S. and Europe.

With the disease better contained, although not eliminated, governments are easing lockdowns to get people back to work. But absent a vaccine or widespread immunity to infection, that revival poses a multitude of challenges around how people can safely interact at schools, offices and factories without inadvertently giving the virus a chance to proliferate again.

Such questions are prompting experts from diverse fields to drop what they were doing and refocus on Covid-19.

Until recently, James Walsh was fine-tuning a complex computer model to map air pollution in London. Now the researcher at the London-based Alan Turing Institute is working on models to determine whether people are respecting social-distancing rules aimed at limiting transmission of the virus.

“It’s never really been my expertise to work in anything relating to biological viruses or anything of that form,” said Mr. Walsh.

Michael Batty, a professor of planning at University College London, has been building computer models of cities since the 1970s, figuring out such things as how to keep people moving if a subway line breaks down. Now he wonders whether our cities and buildings will need to be redesigned altogether.

“Nobody has ever looked at a situation where everything breaks,” he said. Mr. Batty is coordinating research sponsored by the U.K.’s Royal Society looking into how people arrive at, move within, and exit small spaces such as railway stations and supermarkets, with the goal of figuring out ways to keep people safe.

A preliminary concern: One-way systems to steer shoppers around grocery aisles may not be the right answer, since some evidence suggests it keeps people inside stores longer, raising the likelihood of close contact with others, he said.

Jessica Fanzo, professor of global food and agricultural policy and ethics at Johns Hopkins, is racing to figure out how the pandemic is affecting food supplies in low-income countries. “It is a moment to pause and figure out how we can readjust and make for a more resilient world,” she said.

The eruption of Covid-19 in China last year has triggered a flood of research that continues to pour online and fill the pages of scientific journals world-wide. Doctors and disease experts are still trying to pin down exactly how lethal the virus is, figure out how many people have had it, and come up with a vaccine. For every robust finding adding to our understanding of the bug, there are dozens of questionable claims spreading on social media. Policy makers are under pressure to act quickly despite the uncertainty.

Willy Aspinall, emeritus professor of volcanology at the University of Bristol, learned how to synthesize expert judgments using advanced statistical techniques during two decades advising ministers on the Caribbean island of Montserrat about the risks of a volcanic eruption. He believes such techniques could help policy makers feel their way through the next, uncertain stages of the pandemic with better advice, and is piloting a study looking at reopening schools.

“People are looking over their shoulder and asking, ‘What the hell can volcanologists tell us?’ Actually, we’ve got quite extensive experience managing scientific uncertainty in decision support,” he said.

Such unexpected links between public health and other fields are popping up again and again.

Michael Kinzel, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida, is working on a cough drop that alters saliva to prevent the formation of the fine aerosolized droplets that transfer the virus from an infected person deep into the lungs of a new victim. A postdoctoral colleague in the project has been sniffing pepper in isolation to induce sneezes as part of the research.

The idea came to him after his wife, a virologist, in a Facebook argument with neighbors, explained this method of transmission. In a lifetime spent poring over aircraft design, he knew a lot about making liquid fuels into fine particles to better ignite in a jet engine. “What we’re doing is the exact opposite,” he said.

Mr. Kinzel sees in the pandemic the promise of one of those rare moments when cross-pollination between academic fields leads to big leaps in knowledge. “It helps force people to look outside the box,” he said.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article.