Symptom-trackers and doctor dorms: how universities are fighting Covid-19

Universities are right on the frontline in the battle against coronavirus. They’re loaning the NHS vital medical equipment and facilities, using 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment, researching potential vaccines, and boosting the NHS workforce with fast-tracked medical students and healthcare academics. But these aren’t the only ways they’re contributing. Here are a few of the unexpected ways in which universities are using their research and resources to improve people’s lives.

A new breathing aid

The lack of ventilators is one of the biggest challenges facing the health system during the coronavirus epidemic. But not all patients need a ventilator – some can be treated with a breathing aid. University College London’s (UCL) engineering academics have collaborated with Formula One to rapidly develop a device that means ventilators can be saved for those who need them most.

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A speedier diagnosis

A University of Cambridge team has developed a new test which can diagnose coronavirus in under 90 minutes by identifying traces of the virus’ genetic material. As well as enabling patients to be quickly triaged, the test can determine which healthcare workers have already been infected. It’s currently being rolled out at hospitals in Cambridge before it is launched across the UK.

The symptom-tracker app

Worried that you’ve got coronavirus? There’s an app for that. Developed by researchers at King’s College London, the app asks participants to fill in some of their personal and medical data, then take one minute a day to report on whether they feel healthy – and, if not, to answer questions on a wide range of symptoms, from coughs and fever to fatigue, diarrhoea and confusion. The goal is to inform the public as well as provide real-time information on the spread of the illness across the UK.

Mental health support for NHS workers

The coronavirus crisis is likely to put considerable strain on everyone’s mental health, but the pressure will be even more severe on frontline NHS workers. To tackle this, psychologists at the University of Liverpool have developed targeted mental health resources based on their work with people who have worked in high-stakes situations such as earthquakes, terror attacks and war zones.

Dorm rooms for doctors and nurses

The newly created hospital, NHS Nightingale, is located out in east London’s docklands, right next to a University of East London campus. That’s why the university is making its student halls available free of charge to healthcare workers deployed there.

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Robot gallery tours

Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the UK’s biggest robotics centre, is usually the place scientists go to ponder the complex questions behind bioengineering. But it’s now deploying its two-wheeled video-conferencing robot to give people real-time art exhibition tours at Hastings Contemporary, an art gallery that’s been closed due to coronavirus.

Support for local businesses

While the public health emergency is what matters most, coronavirus will also have a serious impact on businesses. Teesside University has collaborated with the Tees Valley mayor and the local authority to shore up businesses and help them survive the crisis. The university is helping local businesses shift online as well as providing support to budding digital entrepreneurs.

Sewing masks

The lack of protective gear for NHS staff has been widely reported. That’s why staff at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design at London Met have sewn nearly 500 face masks over the past week to be used wherever they’re needed most, from maternity wards in hospitals to homeless shelters. The masks are made following NHS guidelines, and the staff plan to tap into the local sewing community to make hundreds more.

A conservatoire in your living room

Sitting at home isn’t where you’d expect to enjoy world-class performing arts, but the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) is aiming to shift people stuck at home away from Netflix and towards something more highbrow. Digital platform RCSatHome is offering lunchtime concerts, talks and performances from its staff, students and alumni on demand. The platform will also shortly host a new original musical written and produced by RCS students.

Vertical farms that feed the homeless

Two vertical farms experimenting with producing bigger, higher quality crops have been based in converted shipping containers at Nottingham Trent University for the past year. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, they’ve had a new purpose: the university is boxing up pak choi, spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, coriander and basil to provide to homeless people.

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