Can We Engineer a Better Response to COVID-19? | Opinion

Every day, right around the globe, experts in epidemiology, virology and public health are working hard to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed so many and disrupted everyday life in such a profound way. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these scientists and the frontline medical staff who risk their own safety to do battle every day with this vexatious virus.

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that tackling the coronavirus challenge is going to take a huge cross-sector effort—one in which engineers have important roles to play alongside their biomedical colleagues. In the UK, this first reached public notice with the UK government's appeal to the engineering community to urgently scale up ventilator manufacturing, eliciting thousands of offers of help from manufacturers of everything from Formula 1 cars to aircraft engines.

This was part of a much broader mobilisation that has been taking place among the UK's engineers, who are enthusiastically embracing the opportunity to contribute to the COVID-19 response. The Royal Academy of Engineering is playing its part by triaging hundreds of proposals and offers of help from its Fellows, partners and engineers at large, and providing support and brokerage to take the most promising ideas forward. We have also been sharing learning across the international network of engineering academies and providing expert advice to government through our National Engineering Policy Centre, which brings together the UK's 39 professional engineering organisations representing nearly half a million engineers.

It has been deeply heartening to see the pace at which the engineering community is willing and able to move. The rapid conversion of London's ExCel exhibition centre into NHS Nightingale, a field hospital with 4,000 beds, was an engineering challenge as much as a medical one. Similarly, Chinese engineers were instrumental in enabling the lightning quick construction of massive field hospitals to treat patients displaying COVID-19 symptoms in Wuhan. In Italy, a 3D printing company came to the rescue of a local hospital to produce replacement respirator valves within 24 hours and there are numerous examples of manufacturers swiftly redeploying staff and assembly lines to expand PPE production.

The agility of the response is all the more impressive because many of these initiatives have involved establishing new collaborations. Alliances of manufacturers are working across several countries – surmounting sectoral and competitive boundaries – to upscale ventilator production. Universities and companies are coming together to accelerate progress, as illustrated by the impressive collaboration between engineers from University College London, clinical teams and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains that rapidly produced a breathing aid to help keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care. Regulators too are stepping up and adapting their processes to fit the urgency of the challenge, with the UCL breathing device approved for NHS use in record time.

Collaboration extends to the involvement of the wider public as well. Folding@home is an international computing project bringing together citizen scientists and engineers from around the world to improve understanding of proteins, including those associated with COVID-19. Collaboration encompasses experts from many different fields, the scale of this multidimensional challenge necessitating a truly multidisciplinary response.

Engineering contributions span all aspects of the COVID-19 response. One of the most important challenges engineers are helping to address is improving our diagnostic testing capability. In addition to tests targeted directly at patients, the Academy is supporting a project using wastewater analysis to predict the spread of COVID-19 using biomarkers from feces and urine in sewage. Remote diagnostic and monitoring tools for other conditions could help to reduce hospital admissions, allowing non-COVID-19 patients to be assessed in their homes, while robotic technology could be deployed more widely to reduce the risk of disease exposure by healthcare professionals and other key workers, for example by assisting with decontamination or autonomous transportation of materials and goods.

Other vital areas of research and development include vaccines and therapeutics. It is not only the development of effective products that matters – we also need to be able to generate them in unprecedented timescales and at a scale that will meet the huge global need. The last few weeks have highlighted just how important it is not to focus on the end products without considering the supply chains - and skills - needed to deliver them at the volume and pace required. Engineering systems approaches will be crucial to improving the resilience of our supply chains and network infrastructure, as well as their capacity to respond to massive changes in demand across much of the world's population. And engineering is also essential to the broader economic response, with digital technology playing a pivotal role in supporting the ongoing operation of many businesses while social distancing measures are in place.

Over the past few months, we've demonstrated that engineers are committed to mobilizing and collaborating to deliver vital products and services at pace, and we will continue to do so until this extraordinary global grand challenge has been conquered.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is the CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, U.K.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​