The impact of STEM in fighting COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced many countries into various forms of lockdowns which have been characterised by the closure of all non-essential businesses and restricted social activities. Only the essential services have been left functioning. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-based sectors are largely dominating much of what has been termed the essential services.

In Zimbabwe the government turned to its tertiary institutions such as the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), Harare Institute of Technology (HIT), Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT), Midlands State University (MSU), the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE) and the Great Zimbabwe University for solutions. These academic institutions have started to produce the much-needed sanitisers, face masks, gloves and other personal protective consumables for the COVID-19 fight.

HIT even went a step further to manufacture a ventilator which it claims can be used on infected patients. CUT was said to be producing more than 2 000 masks per day according to Clinton Musekiwa, the marketing director of that institution. BUSE was reported to be producing 2 000 litres of hand sanitiser per day. BUSE had earlier in April scored a first when it reported that it had found a cure for the newcastle disease which has been known to cause major poultry losses in the world.

Globally, manufacturing companies ramped up production of healthcare equipment such as ventilators, respirator masks and gloves. In the United States, President Donald Trump signed and issued the Defence Production Act, an executive order which compels companies like 3M to increase production of N95 respirator masks. Also included in the order are companies like General Electric, Ford and General Motors to ensure that they produce ventilators.

Ford and General Motors, who traditionally are car manufacturer, re-purposed their plants to make ventilators.

It is clear that the STEM-based industries have been a key pillar in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Zimbabwe, the term STEM was arguably popularised by the Higher and Tertiary Education ministry then led by Jonathan Moyo. The ministry embarked on a STEM initiative to help drive economic growth. This STEM programme was meant to promote the study of science subjects at Advanced Level and would see the government directly sponsoring children who registered for science subjects at Advanced Level at any public school in the country. I have a brother who benefited through this noble initiative. He is currently studying engineering at Tufts University in Boston, in the United States of America. In this article we briefly look into how the different STEM fields are significantly contributing to the fight against COVID-19 both globally and locally.

Science

World scientists have reiterated that the world will only see a COVID-19 vaccine no sooner than 12-18 months. A few voices have, however, predicted that it could be found by September. Despite the unclear projections, hope lies in the fact that globally, scientists are busy working on developing the much-needed COVID-19 vaccine. There are 21 companies that are working on nearly 70 experimental vaccines being tested globally and at least three have moved to the human clinical trial stage. The Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is helping to finance and co-ordinate an accelerated COVID-19 vaccine development. China reported on April 14 that it had approved early-stage tests for two experimental vaccines to combat the novel coronavirus. Science is also being used by governments to make evidence-based decisions, for example, the reproduction number (or reproductive ratio) of a virus, which is being used as a basis to assess whether to extend lockdowns or not

Technology

Technology is undoubtedly another important field that has shown to be essential during this COVID-19 war. In March, The World Health Organisation launched a WhatsApp chat bot to provide people with information about the novel coronavirus. This strategy was obviously aimed at reaching out easily to over two billion WhatsApp users worldwide.

COVID-19 has forced a sudden shift in how companies and employees go about their work. As more and more people have been forced to work from home, many have resorted to teleworking and virtual communication by using various internet-based communication tools. Applications such as Zoom, Google Meet and Skype have been used for video meetings and for online learning by academic institutions.

Another potential impact from the IT industry is the news that Apple and Google have joined forces to produce a COVID-19 contact tracing technology. They plan to combine their assets to assist the tracking of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tracing those infected is widely seen as essential to controlling the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Google and Apple’s networks will be joined together by a unifying update to their Bluetooth short-range wireless protocols. This technology would utilise Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.

Engineering

In Zimbabwe, the Bulawayo-based NUST was reported to be working with local hospitals to repair malfunctioning ventilators used in the intensive care unit to assist patients with breathing problems and pneumonia complications.

It was reported that the university successfully managed to fix one ventilator at United Bulawayo Hospitals and working on fixing the other seven ventilators that are not functioning as well.

Major US car manufacturers General Motors and Ford planned to produce 10 000 ventilators per month by mid-April while Ford was aiming to produce 50 000 ventilators in 100 days.

In South Africa, the government and private sector are collaborating on a health response called the national ventilator project that seeks to produce 10 000 ventilators by the end of June with only locally-sourced inputs. In Kenya, an apparel factory shifted to producing masks within one week and is now producing 30 000 masks per day.

Despite the positive efforts, African health systems are still ill-prepared to handle a widespread outbreak. The entire continent has just 20 000 beds in intensive-care units (ICUs), equivalent to 1,7 ICU beds per 100 000 people. By comparison, China has an estimated 3,6 ICU beds per 100 000 people, while the United States has 29,4.

There are an estimated 20 000 ventilators across the African continent, far too few to manage large numbers of COVID-19 cases. By comparison, the United States, with one-third of Africa’s population, has up to 160 000 ventilators.

Mathematics

Mathematical models have been used to simulate scenarios and predict evolution of infectious diseases since the early 20th century. Models are expected to provide quick insights of, and predictive power on a new pathogen in the early stages of an outbreak.

The recent imperial team’s COVID-19 model indicated that the United Kingdom’s health service would soon be overwhelmed with severe cases of COVID-19, and might face more than 500 000 deaths if the government took no action The same model suggested that, with no action, the United States might face 2,2 million deaths; it was shared with the White House and new guidance on social distancing quickly followed.


 Joseph Ndondo is a student in business leadership (Masters) at Bindura University of Science Education, a graduate in applied biology and biochemistry from the National University of Science and Technology and an alumnus to a number of fellowships. You can contact him for feedback or questions on kunashe@outlook.com

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