For at least a decade, technology has been a source of solutions. Need a ride? Want takeout? Want to identify a fraudulent transaction out of a million legitimate ones? Is this you at a banquet last July? The pace of development has made technology synonymous with empowerment.
With a pandemic sweeping the globe, what can you do to help if you've spent your time with computers and gadgets? The good news is that there are some things that can be done, some easy, some challenging.
The coronavirus strain threatening the world, SARS-CoV-2, emerged in December 2019 with the first cases in China. Scientists are rushing to understand how it invades our cells and co-opts them into coronavirus producing machines. A key way to understand these cellular attacks is to simulate them - what vulnerabilities do our proteins have? Does coronavirus have any vulnerabilities itself we could exploit to make treatments?
To study protein folding, however, takes massive computing systems tremendous time. But there is an alternate way—pooling thousands of laptops to run small portions of the simulations. That is the approach Stanford University has taken with Folding@home. They can parcel out portions of coronavirus simulations on laptops and video-game graphics cards. The software can easily be installed and run while you are on your computer, or only at night when you aren’t using it.
Collectively, Folding@home has already delivered one hundred million computing hours and generated data for hundreds of scientific publications on protein interactions and drug designs. So, if you aren’t using your computer, you can immediately put it to work to help with the current coronavirus outbreak. And if/when this passes, your computer(s) can continue to contribute to new drug designs to help patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
One of the key risks of the current coronavirus outbreak has less to do with the virus and more to do with us—it puts at risk our health care system’s capacity to handle patients. Even a best-case scenario would leave doctors and nurses scrambling for ventilators and intensive care unit beds. And just as there are shortages with medical equipment net for coronavirus patients, there are shortages of protective gear for doctors. This alarm was first sounded by Italian doctor Marcello Natali, who was running out of masks and gloves at the heart of the epidemic in Milan, Italy. He continued to treat patients despite the shortages, contracted coronavirus, and died of pneumonia complications on March 18. All doctors and nurses in the United States will face the same shortages that Natali warned the world about. New research indicates that high viral loads are associated with the worst symptoms of coronavirus, and doctors and nurses will face re-introduction of the virus as caseloads crush the medical system. This is likely the reason why thousands of doctors and nurses were infected in the course of the outbreak in Hubei province.
One of the most acute pressure points will be N95 respirators, which can filter out many of the water droplets that contain coronavirus. These are in such severe shortage that in some hospitals they are already being reused. The Center for Disease Control has even advised doctors to use items like vacuum cleaner bags in lieu of supplies.
But if you have a 3D printer, you have a solution. Chilean plastics manufacturer Copper3D has open-sourced its N95 respirator design for at-home manufacturing of these critical masks. If you have a 3D printer at home or at your workplace, then you can convert this to manufacture N95 respirators. The best plastic to use is Copper3D’s antimicrobial plastic filaments, which use copper to create as inhospitable a habitat as possible for viruses and bacteria. Recent research suggests that the virus can only survive for four hours on copper metal, but days on other materials. Standard PLA or ABS plastic can be used—PLA may be particularly advantageous as it can be heat-molded to fit someone’s face. Materials as simple as cotton balls can be used to build filters in these. You will need a printing bed of about 199 millimeters x 143.6 millimeters x 11.5 millimeters to make masks for adults. Each mask will last about eight hours, but itself takes an hour to print and thirty minutes to customize. As a result, a single 3D printer running for twelve hours can support around eight doctors or nurses a day in the event disposable N95 respirators run out. This is not the only mask design—a face shield can also be printed.
If your print bed is smaller, there may still be ways to help. In Italy, 3D printers are being used to reverse-engineer broken parts. If you don’t have a 3D printer, but do have experience with 3D computer design, you can prepare replacement parts digitally to be printed by someone else.
One of the most important steps we will all take is to avoid being a vector for this virus—everything you do to stop getting coronavirus doubles as preventative measures for other people. This is why work is moving home rapidly for those workers who can make the transition. But not all of them know how to SSH into a server, or remote-connect to a desktop. Or even set up a conference call. It is nowhere near as exciting as 3D printing essential medical equipment, but if you can help at least one remote worker stay away from the office place by solving their low-level computing challenges, then you've stopped potentially two to three other people from being affected.
As exciting as these contributions can be, your job as a human being is still one of your most important jobs. Stay at home if you can. Wash your hands for twenty minutes with soap, as this destroys the outer lipid layer of the virus, killing it. Keep at least six feet (two meters) between you and strangers. Practice social/physical distancing. Every action you take to prevent yourself from getting the virus inevitably stops two or three other people from getting it from you. It may not be the most satisfying way to help, but it is the simplest.
Lee Drake is the founder of Decision Tree, LLC, a company focused on AI development for mineral exploration. He has a Ph.D in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico.