Tackling the virus through creativity

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Within a few days, 36 project ideas for corona research were submitted.  (Photog

Within a few days, 36 project ideas for corona research were submitted. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Scanderbeg Sauer Photography )

ETH Zurich has been in lockdown for more than two weeks now. Although many projects have been put on hold, research relevant to the coronavirus has gathered speed. Many projects and initiatives are currently underway that are intended to help bring the pandemic under control.

Empty lecture halls, empty corridors, empty laboratories: ETH Zurich has been in lockdown since 17 March, clearing rooms of employees and students alike and solving the university’s notorious lack of space in one fell swoop. Only those who truly need to are permitted to enter the university’s buildings; everybody else is working from home. Even so, not all the plugs have been pulled out or lights switched off in the research labs. Some key research infrastructure, such as the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano and the Swiss Seismological Service, has to remain open. Laboratory animals are also continuing to be cared for. Then there is the COVID-19-related research, for which of course efforts are being ramped up rather than coming to a halt.

Although some experts such as mathematicians and statisticians are able to support the government and cantonal authorities by working from home, other researchers require access to their laboratory infrastructure. As a result, researchers were asked to submit their ideas for potential "coronavirus projects" by last Monday at the latest. The conditions were that the projects must offer immediate benefits in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and be able to be implemented promptly.

36 entries in just five days

Uwe Sauer, a professor at the Department of Biology and head of the ETH Research Commission, received the entries and reviewed them with support from a small team of experts. "As a member of the ETH Research Commission, I am very well informed on research at our university," he says. Nevertheless, the number of creative proposals put together by his colleagues in just five days took him by surprise. A total of 36 projects from a wide range of disciplines were submitted, of which a third were from engineering and two thirds from the life sciences.

Just a week later, 22 projects had been approved, including some that have already been publicly announced. Tanja Stadler, professor of computational biology, for example, is analysing the origin and distribution pathways of coronaviruses based on their genetic make-up. This will enable a better evaluation of the efficacy of prevention measures, and will enable authorities to determine whether a person has been infected by a "domestic" virus or whether a new external infection has occurred.

Quick, effective assistance

Meanwhile, Professor Emma Slack-Wetter from the Department of Health Sciences and Technology and Professor Markus Aebi at the Institute of Microbiology are working on optimising a COVID-19 vaccine intended to protect against a wide range of coronaviruses and which should therefore be effective against future variants. Other teams are working on practical and quickly available care and prevention aids. These include cost-effective ventilators for patients requiring respiratory support, antiviral materials for treating flat surfaces such as door handles, and membranes that can be used to enrich the oxygen content in the air to more than 50 percent. "These are efficient solutions that could offer relief in less affluent countries," says Sauer.

All other projects on hold

Detlef Günther firmly believes that it is important for everyone to support the decision-makers in politics and government in the current situation. As Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations at ETH, he is responsible for research during the lockdown: "For ETH, this means working together to find solutions to the problems we are currently facing and collaborating constructively." Günther is pleased to see how committed and disciplined all ETH staff have been in response to the call for project submissions and to working together as part of various taskforces and committees. The understanding staff have shown towards the situation and their willingness to wind down their research is exemplary: "I am thankful that our colleagues have put everything else on hold and taken the time to ensure that ETH is ready to enter emergency mode," he says.

Corona Impulse Fund

Implementing research projects relating to our lives with and after the corona virus quickly and flexibly is currently the central task of ETH Zurich. The university is also looking for additional funds for scholarships. Together with the ETH Foundation, an impulse fund has been set up to support projects quickly and unbureaucratically.

Markus Gross