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COVID-19 Research: Initiatives From The High Energy Physics Community

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In this uncharted territory of an almost-apocalyptic world, reeling under a global quarantine, there is a ray of hope. Science. Research. Knowledge. Aptly accompanied by the hopefully majoritarian social and psychological resilience. 

The obvious ongoing research is on a future vaccine for the COVID-19 disease. Important initiatives are also being taken on the treatment related research. The European Organization for Nuclear Physics (CERN,  Switzerland) and National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN, Italy) have joined the battle against this pandemic. Several of my colleagues at CERN and INFN are a part of this initiative. 

CERN, the particle physics facility in Switzerland, hosts the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where the Higgs boson was discovered a few years back. In the past there were successful technology transfer initiatives facilitated by CERN, from the high energy physics community to the medical community, in cancer therapy, medical imaging etc. In a view to contribute towards the battle against COVID-19, CERN is in contact with the experts from WHO with which an agreement already exists. 

CERN is the hub of a vast global computing resource – the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG), which is used for the research at the LHC. The institutes working on the studies on vaccines and epidemic modelling could use the vast computing resources of the WLCG.  CERN has also deployed a data sharing platform called Zenodo which collects research outputs related to COVID-19. 

One of the major concerns in this pandemic is the number of patients needing intensive care which is overwhelming for the hospitals. This concerns mainly the number of ventilators available, which are used in various stages of the treatment. The ventilator manufacturers are doing their best to keep up to the demand, but it might not be enough.

Left: The HEV prototype at CERN (image courtesy- CERN). Trials are ongoing for this device. Right: The MVM developed by INFN and its collaborators. It has been approved by the US FDA (image courtesy – MVM collaboration)

A research group at CERN has built a prototype novel ventilator (image) called the HEV (High Energy physics community Ventilator), based on the systems used to regulate gas flows for particle physics detectors. The National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), in Italy, along with a few other research institutes, has also developed a novel mechanical ventilator called the Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM). Experts in the field were involved at different stages of the design of these devices. Both these devices, the HEV and the MVM, are based on easily available components to facilitate large-scale production in a short amount of time and at a limited cost. The idea is to use these devices for patients in mild or recovery phases, enabling the more high-end machines to be used for the critical cases. The low power requirement would enable the use of these devices in remote areas with electricity problems. The MVM has received the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) certification for ventilators of the American Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), as of 1st May 2020. So, the MVM could now be produced and used in countries which recognize that certification. The extent of use of these devices in the present pandemic remains to be seen. In the long term, though, the open and cheap technology would surely help to manufacture future ventilators. 

Time and again we have seen that science, and not pseudo-science, shows the way in a disaster. This time too, we will eventually come out of this pandemic, vindicating science and our basic values which makes us human, towards a new, hopefully thoughtful and a compassionate civilization.

(The author is a scientist at National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), Italy Associated to CERN, Switzerland)

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