Role of astronomy in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic

Prepared by astronomer and OAD Fellow, Dr. Marie Korsaga.
This information is not exhaustive and is changing all the time as more projects are embarked on. If you know of others, please write to us so we can keep this updated (email: Dr. Marie Korsaga <marie.korsaga(at)lam.fr>)

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). The first case was reported in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China on 31 December 2019 by the World Health Organisation, which has rapidly become a global pandemic and is continuing to spread across the globe. For example in less than 4 months i.e on 22nd of April, more than 2.4 million people worldwide have tested positive for COVID-19, with over 163,000 confirmed deaths thus far (the latest numbers can be found on the WHO website). Those numbers are continuing to grow, with over 70,000 new cases per day.

Since treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 are still being actively researched, different procedures have been used to limit the widespread infections of the virus while a proper cure is being developed. Therefore, every country around the globe is taking measures to contribute to protect its people;  to date, the most safe and effective way to minimize and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 is to adopt social distancing, quarantine, stay-at-home policies for non-essential businesses, frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, etc. Indeed, all of these quality recommendations are only possible because of the science that came before. 

In the  fight against this ongoing global pandemic, scientists are actively working together, using their knowledge and available resources to provide solutions. In this document, we provide a synthesis of efforts and roles played by scientists who are usually working in areas not related to infectious diseases, especially astronomers, in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on development.

 

Fight against the COVID-19 pandemic

Contributions by the Astronomy community

Different activities were conducted by scientists (groups or individuals) to help understand the spread of the disease and to help develop new treatments and vaccines, to increase healthcare capacity (such as ventilators, personal protective equipment, etc) and help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:

  • The South Africa Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) is working in collaboration with other astronomer and engineer teams at SAAO (South African Astronomy Observatory) and SALT (South African Large Telescope), scientists and engineers of the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge on the process to manage the National Ventilators Project for the local design, manufacturing of 10000 ventilators, and up to 50000 more if necessary; more information here. The aim is to help patients get oxygen by pumping air into their lungs with no need of electricity. This will help to treat the majority of hospitalised stricken cases in South Africa and across sub-Saharan Africa. The ventilator project is based on the experience that the SARAO team has gained in the development and construction of the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to the world’s largest radio telescope SKA (Square Kilometre Array).
  • In Canada, Dr. Art McDonald, Professor Emeritus (Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy) at Queen’s University and 2015 Nobel Laureate is working  in collaboration with other Queen’s physics researchers, to design and manufacture ventilators that provide a controlled supply of oxygen and air to COVID-19-stricken patients. The ventilator design will be derived from the collective expertise in the design of gas-handling and electronic control systems used in the search for dark matter, which represents more than 80% of the Universe.
  • To defeat the coronavirus and help support people that have the disease, NASA is using its personnel and technologies to develop some solutions (from ventilators to decontamination systems). For that, a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed the Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally (VITAL), which could assist patients who require breathing assistance. The ventilator design is simpler and faster to build than the  conventional ventilator and naturally low cost. NASA’s Glenn Research Center is using their expertise in aerosol physics to work in collaboration with other companies on a decontamination system called AMBUStat. This system is used to distribute droplets of a sterilizing fluid that allows for rapid decontamination of ambulances and other vehicles. More detail here.
  • In France, through different personal discussions, many laboratories have printed visors using 3D printers to help healthcare personnels. The CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) expressed a need for specialists in simulations and most astronomers have responded to this call and are working with epidemiologists to model simulations of contamination that can predict the appearance of peaks and help to understand the initial conditions of the pandemic. Another team of astronomers are working together with Microsoft’s  engineers, and epidemiologists by combining different public data  to construct epidemiologic models to predict the evolution of the COVID-19 disease.
  • An interesting study has been done by astronomers to forecast the future evolution of the COVID-19 outbreak. In all countries that they have investigated, they found that the time evolution of the inverse fractional daily growth rate of new infections appears to be universal and is accurately characterised by a universal function which is well modeled by the two Gumbel parameters function (Daddi et al., 2020). This study contributes to predict the time of the peak in the daily new infections and the time when the rate of new infections reaches pre-set low level which can be used to help governments for planning the reopening of social  and economic activities. Another interesting statistical analysis done by an astronomer at SARAO Prof. Bruce Bassett to understand the impact and implication of the coronavirus in order to help inform policy can be found in this link.
  • Using an  exact analytical solution of the Susceptible-Infected-Recovered (SIR), Harko et al., 2020 with expertise on general relativity, astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology described the spread of an epidemic in a given population using the SIR model without births and deaths and including births and deaths. The interesting thing about this study is that this analytic solution can be used by biologists to run experiments to observe the spread of infectious diseases by introducing natural initial conditions. These experiments could help control the spread of the pandemic.
  • Many astronomers in India in collaboration with other scientists published guidelines to answer scientifically and sensitively some of the questions related to slow and prevent the spread of the COVID-19. These guidelines are available in many Indian languages and taking into account the local living conditions that make physical distancing difficult for almost everyone.

 

Contributions by other non-medical science communities

The medical science community is in the front line to fight the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, other science communities which are not directly involved in medical science, are also putting together their skills and expertise to work in order to contribute in the fight against the pandemic.  In this section, we provide different examples of activities conducted by these non-medical scientists.

  • From the OWSD website: “In late March, the Secretariat at OWSD surveyed our network of thousands of woman scientists living and working in developing countries, to ask them how they, their research and their countries have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Their stories are collected in the document here. While sobering, these stories also inspire hope: from a Sudanese molecular biologist who is leading an initiative to make ventilators using 3D printers, to a Sri Lankan biochemistry professor who has volunteered her lab for diagnostic testing, to the professors in a Palestinian university who organized a special course on COVID-19 to teach students the principles of epidemiology, OWSD members are applying their knowledge and skills to helping their countries, and the world, rise to this challenge.”

  • A group of scientists have created a web-series in order to give a voice to scientists and make access to reliable data on this health crisis through a series of questions.
  • A monitoring tool,  the COVID-19 South Africa dashboard has been created by a team of scientists from iThemba Labs in collaboration with other partners to observe the development of the virus in the country and provide predictions for the spread and impact of the pandemic in South Africa.
  • A list of different activities (see link here) pointing out what researchers are doing during to contribute to the fight against the current pandemic using their skills and knowledge on statistics, machine learning tools, etc. to work to classify and separate infected and non-infected people using X-ray images and statistics, to predict future trends of the virus.
  • Many physicists are doing COVID-19 modelling using their expertises in Mathematics and modelling to set out key challenges in major areas of infectious disease dynamics by collecting detailed data on how people interact over a day, taking into account their age, locality, etc. More information here.
  • Indian Scientists are working together to address issues relating to the pandemic by: 
    • Helping public through interacting (addressing and answering queries) and sharing accurate science-based  resources with them via platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp.
    • Helping healthcare professionals via mathematical modelling, app development that connect global public to healthcare workers, local groceries, producing low price of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that provide protection for the entire body, tracking the incidence and spread of the COVID-19 disease.
  • Satellite data and drone technology can contribute to meet challenges such as controlling infectious disease outbreaks, delivering masks, gowns and test kits. The UK Space Agency and their international partnership are working together to help medical staff around the world and to provide the best possible care for all patients using satellites and space technology such as satellite communications, Earth observation satellites or technology derived from human spaceflight. More information can be found here.
  • The coronavirus innovative map which is a platform of hundreds of innovations and solutions that help understand and better cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights virtual platforms and tools (e.g., Huxelerate, Weschool, Mediseen) to help researchers to obtain accurate 3D images of the spike; allow physicians and healthcare workers to assess patients online; detect and monitor COVID-19 efficiently; identify potential candidate treatments.
  • In South Africa, several universities are using 3D printing to provide basic protective equipment such as masks, screens and even unique valves. 
  • Researchers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and King’s College London University have created a Covid symptom  trackers which is one of the most popular apps in the United Kingdom. This app provides facilities such as tracking the symptoms of COVID-19, home testing, temperature reading. It could contribute to helping the National Health Service (NHS) to learn more about the spread of the virus in specific areas and understand the symptoms.  More information here.
  • The International Science Council has launched the COVID-19 Global Science Portal with information and commentary from scientists in various fields.

The different scientific contributions in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic show that all science is necessary and useful in daily life and can become more efficient, open and collaborative in times of crisis. The tools that scientists develop through this crisis will contribute to face future crises.

 

Potential ways for Astronomy and Physics communities to contribute

  • Different calls for proposals were opened in order to receive and fund projects which could contribute to responding to the current crisis. For example:
  •  The OAD is releasing a fast tracked call for COVID-19 related proposals for projects or partnerships that use astronomy to help address some of the impacts of COVID-19 such as assisting  teachers to work remotely to deliver lessons, purchasing mobile data for people to access information on the pandemic, online schooling. The OAD will be using its experience acquired during its previous calls for proposals to rapidly identify and select high impact projects or partnerships. 
  • The European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) has launched a call for proposals for COVID-19 research in sub-Saharan Africa in order to address urgent research questions in the context of the current COVID-19 outbreak and better understand the natural history of infection.
  • The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) is offering a competitive grant for research collaboration to technologists and researchers who are doing research that can help address challenges related to COVID-19. 
  • The COVID-19 Global Hackathon Project List compiles a list of hackathons targeting different areas in which problems and solutions are presented. These hackathons regroup many experts who support local communities in improving their businesses, providing tools to facilitate online education, proposing hacks to improve the health system, etc.
  • The NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge in collaboration with other partners are organising a global hackathon which regroups scientists around the world. The aim is to solve challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic ranging from studying the coronavirus and its spread using space-based data to the impact the disease is having on the Earth system (physical, chemical, and biological processes of the earth).

 

Potential responses to COVID-19

If the government of each country does not take enough targeted measures to support individuals and the economy, we will be facing a catastrophe even more serious such as businesses closing, increasing unemployment rate, hunger, stress, depression, etc. For that, different potential ideas need to be put together to help cope with the spread of the virus and the economic shocks. For example:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is putting young girls and women at high risk of home violence and cutting them off from essential protection services and social networks. We need to work to provide them rigorous protection against gender-based violence through remote systems with easy access to information, police services, essential sexual and reproductive health services, etc. 
  • Every individual must personally seek information from reliable sources to fight the spread of fake news. The WHO, together with different health organisations at national levels, has made effort to set up official channels of information on different platforms in this regard.
  • We must put effort in sharing knowledge and data to promote collaborative research, by creating networks that include researchers from developing countries.
  • It has become clear that, beyond the pandemic, we must explore innovative ways to ensure the continuity of education based on distance learning especially in rural communities. This involves reducing the cost of remote work facilities such as internet and computer prices to strengthen the ability of people to work and study remotely.
  • Several governments around the world have provided support to various businesses, from large and medium sized enterprises to small businesses to cope with the economic effects of the pandemic. Such support must be extended to mostly female-owned micro businesses, in an effort to empower women and fight gender inequality.
  • Because social isolation, quarantine, and lockdown can affect human psychological well-being, it is necessary to provide psychological support to families and individuals through various platforms. A wide campaign would be useful in this regard, helping individuals for instance to maintain a healthy daily routine, dedicate time to physical activities, eat healthy, sleep well, etc.
  • The Global Young Academy (GYA) delivers specific recommendations to governments, the public, and young researchers to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) has put in place a webpage focusing on the socioeconomic impacts in order to support the world to contain the catastrophe and rise stronger after the current crisis. UN DESA also hosted a series of webinars on COVID-19 to discuss for example about how to improve the way that science and technology are used to resolve the actual pandemic in the world.