UC Berkeley engineering faculty, students mobilize to assist in COVID-19 relief effort

Lily Hu/File

Related Posts

Students and faculty from the UC Berkeley College of Engineering are mobilizing to assist in the COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, relief effort.

Various members of the college are working on projects related to several health aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects include finding ways to decontaminate N95 masks for reuse, converting sleep apnea machines to ventilators and finding ways to remotely control ventilators, in addition to other research.

One team is working with N95Decon, a multi-university research organization, to evaluate existing research and design systems to safely decontaminate masks.

“As these are crisis conditions, decontamination is an emergency practice intended to reduce the risks caused by the shortage of N95s,” said Samantha Grist, a campus postdoctoral fellow in bioengineering and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, in an email.

According to Grist, decontamination would not mean the masks are completely free from posing a risk of infection, rather, the masks would pose a reduced risk.

She also said the best practice is to use new masks as decontamination does not solve the shortage.

“The methods we have been assessing from a scientific perspective unfortunately cannot and do not replace the need for new N95s, as these masks were designed for single-use,” Grist said in the email. “Our goal is to provide information and literature-based evidence to help decision-makers with extremely difficult risk-management decisions given that new N95 masks may not be an option.”

Another team is working to convert sleep apnea machines to ventilators to help reduce the shortage. The modifications fit within the Food and Drug Administration’s guidance for converting sleep apnea machines, according to campus mechanical engineering associate professor Grace O’Connell.

More than 300 people have registered to donate their sleep apnea machines through Ventilator SOS, a website that went live Friday. The project started about three weeks ago.

“This design can be used for mild or moderate cases of COVID and can be used for patients that are weaning off of ventilation,” O’Connell said in an email. “That will help to free up the supply of much needed ventilation for more severe cases of coronavirus.”

Campus electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, professor Michel Maharbiz is working to allow hospital staff to remotely operate ventilators, lowering their risk of infection. The efforts to find a way to remotely control ventilators arose from requests at Bay Area hospitals, according to Maharbiz.

There are a number of different approaches, according to Maharbiz, but he advocates for wireless communication using ports built into the machines.

“A scalable remote control for ventilators would be a big deal,” Maharbiz said in an email. “It would lower the use of scarce protective equipment such as face masks, lower clinician exposure to the virus and help clinicians avoid the exhaustion they all face as they man the front lines of this crisis.”

UC Berkeley, along with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, manages the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute, which supports artificial intelligence research in a variety of areas, including the COVID-19 effort. The first call for proposals addresses research concerning pandemic mitigation, such as the application of AI to slow the disease’s spread, designing test strategies and ways to help improve societal resilience.

EECS professor and co-director of the institute Shankar Sastry noted the value of randomized controlled trials to validate research and AI’s value in helping fight COVID-19.

“Ask yourself, if we use the techniques of AI machine learning to speed our process, you know time is everything, because really in this particular case it will save lives,” Sastry said. “Really, this is a chance for us all to band together and really put our best foot forward.”

Contact Taylor Rudman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @TaylorRudman.