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Engineers preventing second wave of Covid-19 ‘have opportunity to tackle climate and other wider challenges’


Engineers fighting the spread of Covid-19 have a golden opportunity to tackle other serious environmental and social challenges, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has said.

With increasing focus on measures to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus – such as improved ventilation systems and antiviral surfaces – the engineering community also has the chance to look ahead and creatively tackle other issues such as climate change and wider accessibility, said Professor Catherine Noakes, chair of the Sage Environmental Working Group.

Professor Noakes, who is a fellow of the IMechE and environmental engineering expert at the University of Leeds, made the comments during a briefing arranged by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Science Media Centre yesterday (3 June). The assembled experts, including Pete Sellars, chief executive of the Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Estate Management, and Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, a Cambridge professor and member of the Sage group, discussed the response to the pandemic and tentative steps towards a partial return to ‘normal’ life.

“We are currently very focused on the now, what’s happening this week and how to get us out of lockdown. But it is, I think, important from an engineering perspective to look to the future,” said Professor Noakes.

“We focus a lot on climate and energy, and those challenges haven’t gone away. We focus on wellbeing and comfort, and more focus on indoor air quality in buildings, and those challenges haven’t gone away – and now we’ve got a new one around disease resilience as well.

“So there is a real opportunity for the engineering community to be creative. A lot of this is going to be for the next generation of engineers, to tackle and really think of new, novel solutions… a real opportunity here to adapt how we design and manage and create our built environments to be different, and better for society as a whole.”

There also needs to be increased focus on ensuring more promising projects make their way from research institutions into the ‘real world’, she added.

Better ventilation systems will play an important part preventing airborne infection in busy buildings such as offices, said Shaun Fitzgerald. People need as much fresh air as possible, but it should not be circulated from one occupied space to another. This could become vital in colder winter months, which could coincide with another infection peak.

Preventing touching of shared surfaces – with automatic doors, for example – and antiviral surfaces are another important focus. Regular manual cleaning of shared surfaces in busy environments is often impractical, said Dr Felicity de Cogan, research fellow at the University of Birmingham and founder of NitroPep, because it could be a matter of seconds between two people interacting with a surface.

Surfaces which release antimicrobial material or are permanently antimicrobial could potentially quickly kill coronavirus particles – although the technology is not yet ready.

“These are a much stronger prospect to prevent surface transmission of this disease,” Dr de Cogan said. “They generally don’t need so much maintenance and they will work continuously. They don’t require so much change in people’s behaviour, which can sometimes be challenging for new technologies.”

Technologies with integrated silver and copper are 99% effective against microbes, she said, although they currently work over two to six hours – not quick enough to prevent coronavirus transmission in busy environments.

“At the moment there is a great deal of innovation going on to make sure that we have materials that will kill the virus in a really short timeframe,” she said. “The timeframe we need is really seconds to minutes, and simultaneously can be built into materials so we can have a really extended time of protection, ideally for years, and this can then be built into environments going forward as a very long-term solution.”

NitroPep’s method of surface treating combines a bespoke surface engineering process to ‘activate’ metal surfaces and then ‘dip-coating’ them with an antimicrobial agent. Treated surfaces kill more than 90% of pathogenic microbes in seconds, and prevent the formation of biofilms.

Dr de Cogan said the company’s technology is being tested on the coronavirus, with test data expected soon. She predicted a wave of antiviral surface options this year, potentially in the coming weeks but more likely in several months’ time.

Antimicrobial pigments and paints could be used to treat surfaces in hospitals to prevent cross-contamination. Other research includes new bio-inspired metamaterials with antimicrobial properties, or the adaption of existing antibacterial or antifungal surfaces.

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