CDC coronavirus

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

UF Health researchers and staff are working to make essential resources available to combat COVID-19. 

From developing respirator mask and ventilator alternatives, to evaluating patients, vaccines in development and dispensing test kits, here’s what UF Health personnel are doing to protect the public.

Team creates masks made from existing hospital materials

A group from UF Health’s department of anesthesiology has created masks to be mass-produced out of pre-existing medical materials for protection against COVID-19.

Due to high demand for N95 respirator masks, which has put many medical workers’ lives at risk following the spread of the virus, UF anesthesiology professor Bruce Spiess wanted to create a simple mask from sterile wrapping, which is typically used on surgical instrument trays, UF Health announced in a press release.

The mask is made from material that cannot be penetrated by water and bacteria, blocks 99.9 percent of particles and is about 4 percent more effective at blocking them than N95 masks, the release read. 

The material, called Halyard material, comes in four-by-four-foot sheets and about 10 masks can be made from a single sheet, with an estimated 500 to 1,000 sheets available at UF Health hospitals daily, according to the release.

“This material is otherwise thrown out,” Spiess said. “By taking it, cutting it and making masks out of it, we’ve repurposed it.”

Spiess has been approved to proceed with the project by UF Health hospital administrators and infection control experts, the release read. Officials also noted the masks will not replace the N95, but will be of service during critical shortages.

Kits with pre-cut pieces of Halyard material, ribbon or elastic to wrap around the head and a nose wire will soon be distributed for people to sew masks from home, the release read. The masks would return to UF Health the next day to be sterilized before being distributed, with the masks preferably fit tested, or pressed as tightly to the face as possible.

Spiess said in the release that he hopes the masks will be mass distributed, inviting creativity as prototype designs work through development.

“My goal is to promote this throughout the country,” he said. “Every hospital uses this same material.”

Researchers develop low-cost, makeshift ventilators

A team of UF researchers have developed an open-source ventilator to be made available to the public in wake of COVID-19.

UF research professor Samsun Lampotang led a team to develop a cheap ventilator out of materials from Home Depot, like air-tight PVC water pipes and lawn-sprinkler valves, UF Health said in a press release

The development comes as relief after global shortages of ventilators, which are critical to keeping many COVID-19 patients alive, according to the New York Times.

The team partnered with colleagues at UF and in places like Canada, India, Ireland, Vietnam and Brazil to swiftly assemble the ventilator. It was expected to be made available to the public in a matter of days from March 25, buildable for only $125 to $250, the release read.

“The power of our approach is that every well-intentioned volunteer who has access to Home Depot, Ace or Lowe’s or their equivalent worldwide can build one,” Lampotang said in the release.

The ventillator’s valves will allow oxygen to flow into a patient’s weakened lungs, the release read, extending life and giving the body time to clear infection.

Lampotang has 43 patents that belong to UF but will not try to patent the ventilator, he said in the release. He is working with his team to add safety features and enhance the machine itself.

He worked decades ago as a UF mechanical engineering student to help build a commercially successful ventilator, the release read, and the researchers worked out design concepts similar to the older ventilator over FaceTime.

The team is working with UF Innovate and UF Health’s legal team as the design advances for clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the release read, and UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering will help run tests to make sure it meets specifications.

To increase accessibility, the project’s website has been translated into French and is being translated into Italian, the release read.

“We want to reach the whole world, and the Gator Nation,” Lampotang said.

UF professor outlines future of COVID-19 vaccine and treatments

A group of educators from across the country, including a UF professor, got together to give information and answer questions on the data behind COVID-19.

Natalie Dean, a UF biostatistics assistant professor, gave a Zoom presentation Thursday on the progress of vaccines and therapeutics addressing COVID-19. She was joined by Harvard University and Columbia University professors and a journalist from The Atlantic, who spoke on topics like modeling and statistics concerning the virus.

Almost 500 people tuned in, asking more than 150 questions through Zoom’s Q&A feature over the course of nearly two hours. When the stream began at 2 p.m. on Thursday, it was “zoom bombed,” intentionally barraded with vulgar, racist and anti-semitic comments in its chat. This was quickly addressed as the general chat was disabled, and the panelists proceeded with their presentations.

Dean said there are more than 50 vaccines candidates currently in development, the typical regulatory path starting with preclinical data that uses animals to test whether or not vaccinations are safe. She said people are working hard to develop a working animal model, and a current promising candidate is ferrets.

This is followed by clinical trials, which she said focuses on the safety and proper dosage of vaccines and also more intense trials where people are vaccinated in communities to determine if it can prevent disease.

This development process can be sped up if its steps are overlapped, including scaling up manufacturing even before vaccines have results from large trials, which she said comes with the risk of creating setbacks that wastes time and resources. 

The World Health Organization is tracking current vaccine candidates, most in preclinical evaluations, but Dean said two have already been received by humans and advanced without an animal model because their platforms have been used for other diseases.

She said the expedited process carries concerns, particularly the potential for vaccine-enhanced disease, where those who receive a vaccine can be put at more risk for the disease.

“Every step of the way needs to be very intentional,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is vaccinate a large number of people, then be concerned that we’re putting them at increased risk.”

Dean has worked on ebola vaccination trials, and said while trials test whether or not a vaccine worked, they can also help contribute to the control of the disease. In this case, she said it makes sense to target high-priority individuals like health and elder care workers, but not the elderly because of how their immune systems tend to respond to vaccines. 

Any area considered for inclusion in a vaccine trial would need good local case-based surveillance, she said. She showed off models she worked on during the Zika epidemic that outlined case prevalence, which were able to be used to identify promising vaccine sites. She said she could see something similar happening with COVID-19.

Dean also touched on therapeutic treatments, summarizing candidates that included old antimalarials, used to treat malaria. She said these treatments are prescribable to COVID-19 patients by doctors and are relatively safe and accessible, but can have side-effects and should only be used when instructed. She said there are currently no licensed therapeutics available for the treatment of COVID-19, and nothing currently available is both safe and effective.

While many of these vaccinations and treatments can seem favorable in the lab, Dean said many do not end up preventing severe disease and death.

“Just because something looks promising early on doesn’t mean it will translate,” she said.

Contact AJ Bafer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ajbafer.