Life Wellbeing Good news from the front: Australian COVID-19 innovations
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Good news from the front: Australian COVID-19 innovations

Melbourne researchers are testing a personal ventilation hood for hospital beds to contain viral droplet spread. Photo: Penny Stephens
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Each week, we’re endeavouring to provide a sample of what scientists and researchers are doing to meet and defeat the coronavirus crisis.

This week, we look at some of what has been happening in Australia.

Ventilators, do we have enough?

In countries where COVID-19 has hit hardest, hospitals have been overwhelmed by more patients they can readily care for, especially intensive care units.

How well is Australia placed to deal with a sudden outbreak of seriously ill people?

According to a report in Australian Doctor, researchers led by intensive-care specialist Dr Ed Litton from the Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth surveyed all 191 intensive care units (ICUs) across the country to determine their baseline bed capacity and their ability to respond to predicted increased demand.

They found that the number of ventilators in ICUs could be more than doubled to cope with an expected surge in critically ill patients with COVID-19.

These include 179 human-model ventilators from veterinary clinics that could be deployed to hospitals.

The findings, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, suggest that ICUs could almost triple their bed capacity if need be, although it would be more of a challenge to find enough appropriately trained nurses.

Of the 178 ICUs representing 2261 intensive care beds (95 per cent of national capacity) that responded to the survey, it was estimated a maximal surge would add an additional 4261 beds to deal with the crisis, an increase of 189 per cent.

This suggests Australia’s intensive care units will cope comfortably if the rate of new cases and serious cases remains on trend, with the continued flattening of the curve.

Early modelling from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity found that, without adequate intervention, our ICUs would have been overwhelmed by up to 35,000 coronavirus patients a day.

Social distancing has saved us from what would have been a hopeless position.

All good in the hood

University of Melbourne researchers working in collaboration with Western Health have designed a personal ventilation hood for hospital beds to help contain the droplet spread of COVID-19 in ICUs.

According to a statement from the university, the transparent, movable personal ventilation hood sucks air away from the patient while creating an effective droplet containment barrier.

The device is also large enough to accommodate other medical equipment that might be attached to the patient.

Patients trials are due to start at Footscray Hospital this week, with use on COVID-19 patients possible from next week.

“The prototype device has been made using readily accessible components at a low cost, making it suitable for low- to middle-income countries,” the university said.

Crystal gazing, sort of

A team of Monash researchers has produced a 3D-map of a SARS-CoV-2 protein at atomic resolution using the Macromolecular Crystallography beamlines produced by the Australian Synchrotron.

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness.

Determining the crystal shape of a protein is a key step in understanding its function and role in replication of the virus.

The non-structural protein 9 (Nsp9) mapped by the scientists is thought to mediate viral replication and virulence.

As they write in a research paper: “Current understanding suggests that Nsp9 is involved in viral genomic RNA reproduction.”

This is a big deal because it means Nsp9 could be targeted to block the ability of the virus to infect and replicate in the body.

According to a statement from the researchers, the COVID-19 virus only produces 27 or so proteins.

Scientists across the world are currently trying to understand how to prevent the production of these proteins inside our cells when the virus repurposes our bodies to promote its lifecycle.

Research Fellow Dr Dene Littler has been examining some of the lesser-understood proteins produced by SARS-CoV-2.

“This will be part of a broad strategy by the world’s scientists to develop entirely new drugs that are specifically targeted at corona viral proteins, blocking the virus’s ability to infect and reproduce in human cells,’’ said Dr Littler, in a prepared statement.

“Viruses such as those that cause the common cold haven’t had sufficient health implications before to warrant large-scale drug research programs.

“However, in the face of the current pandemic that has obviously changed and we are playing a fast-paced game of catch up”.

Macromolecular crystallography is a technique used to study biological molecules such as proteins, viruses and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA).

The technique affords a high enough resolution for researchers to study the detailed mechanism by which macromolecules carry out their functions in living cells and organisms.