EPFL launches a series of projects to combat the Coronavirus crisis

EPFL researchers have been working for weeks to help fight the pandemic and mitigate its short- and long-term consequences. Studies are already under way on methods to stem the spread of the virus, diagnose the disease and discover a vaccine. EPFL researchers are also part of an EU initiative called PEPP-PT to develop an app that can identify people who have been in contact with a coronavirus carrier. Hackathons are yet another element of our School’s effort to combat COVID-19.
© 2020 EPFL / Alain Herzog

EPFL is focusing its research efforts on discoveries that can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and alleviate its effects on society. The projects range from developing a treatment or vaccine to deploying rapid responses to attenuate the crisis’s impact on people. In the past two weeks, EPFL researchers have put forth around 40 coronavirus-related project ideas.

The School has already chosen 12 such projects to receive funding. These studies were selected because they can deliver direct responses to the pandemic. “Some labs are drawing on existing research or on systems that they have already developed, while others have proposed completely new ideas that came out of an intense brainstorming process,” says Paul Sunderland, the deputy to the Vice President for Research. The research must be completed in the short- to medium-term with tangible results ideally in the next six to nine months. Each study selected for the program will be given tens of thousands of francs in additional funding. EPFL staff taking part in the projects will be given special authorization to work on the otherwise-closed campus.

Some projects bring together researchers from different EPFL schools or involve collaborations with other Swiss research institutes. Below are descriptions of the projects selected so far.

Cures and vaccines

  • Structure-based design of protein-based anti-virals and vaccines targeting SARS-CoV-2. Prof. Bruno Correia (STI). This study aims to develop immunogenic compounds and proteins that could inhibit viral invasion, in order to help speed the discovery of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Development of non-toxic virucidal pan-coronavirus antivirals. Prof. Caroline Tapparel (UNIGE) in collaboration with Prof. Francesco Stellacci (STI). The researchers will conduct extensive further testing of a new broad-spectrum antiviral that has already shown to be effective against SARS-CoV-2.

Diagnostics and testing

  • Development of simple, low-cost molecular diagnostic tests using cell-free systems. Prof. Sebastian Maerkl (STI). This lab will repurpose a high-throughput microfluidic diagnostics platform that it developed, so it can be used in SARS-CoV-2 serological assays. The platform will allow more tests to be conducted with significantly reduced reagent consumption.
  • Host genetics of life-threatening SARS-CoV-2 infection in previously healthy patients. Prof. Jacques Fellay (SV). This study will examine the genetic factors predisposing patients to develop COVID-19 in order to inform drug and vaccine development. The researchers will sequence the genome and the blood transcriptome of selected COVID-19 patients younger than 50 and without other risk factors yet who required ventilation in an intensive care unit.

Preventing or tracking contagion

  • Wastewater-based epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 in Switzerland. Prof. Tamar Kohn (ENAC). SARS-CoV-2 is shed in the feces of infected persons one to two weeks before cases are confirmed clinically. Using samples from five large wastewater treatment plants, which jointly cover over 700,000 people, this study will monitor the dynamics of the COVID-19 outbreak in Switzerland. The data will let policy makers quickly adapt public health mitigation strategies.
  • Daylight-activated photocatalytic window coatings for disinfection of indoor pathogens. Prof. Paul Dyson (SB). This study aims to develop a transparent, non-toxic coating for glass that will rapidly destroy the Coronavirus and other pathogens as they come into contact with the glass. The coated glass could be used to reduce viral levels in hospitals, public transports, banks and stores.
  • Protective roles of pulmonary surfactant against SARS-CoV-2 infection. Vivek Thacker and Prof. John McKinney (SV). This study will adapt a recently developed lung-on-chip infection model to study how COVID-19 develops in the lower airways and whether drugs already approved for human use can be repurposed to reduce infection and inflammation.

Policy and data

  • MedCo for COVID-19: Understanding the pathology through international, privacy-conscious data sharing. Prof. Jacques Fellay (SV) and Prof. Jean-Pierre Hubaux (IC). This study will look at using MedCo, a software program that has already been installed in three Swiss hospitals, for use in the fight against Covid-19. The software enables data computation on decentralized data, thereby maintaining data protection.
  • Understanding epidemic spreading. Prof. Pascal Frossard (STI) To maximize the efficiency of data analysis and modeling efforts, it is critical to provide access to aggregated, curated and trustworthy data. In this study, engineers will work with the Swiss Data Science Center (SDSC) on an existing project to aggregate various data sources from around the globe in a collection of curated datasets on the open Renku platform.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic: An economic perspective. Prof. Jean-Pierre Danthine, E4S Center (EPFL-UNIL-IMD). This study will explore the tension that policymakers face between public-health measures and the economic costs of those measures. The findings should help policymakers be better prepared in the event of new pandemic outbreaks.
  • “Save the City”: A game to encourage social distancing. Tom de Geus, Mario Geiger, Leonardo Petrini and Prof. Matthieu Wyart (SB). Save the City will be an interactive game in which players are faced with the challenge of managing the coronavirus outbreak. They will be asked to choose among different degrees of confinement measures, for example. Through this game, players will realize that the actions of individuals matter crucially.
  • COVID-19 collaborative research on housing wellbeing: Initiating a Swiss Corona Citizen Science Research Team. Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, Prof. Claudia Binder and Prof. Daniel Gatica-Perez (ENAC). In this study, citizens will be asked to participate in a survey. The aim is to come up with coping strategies for the new living and working conditions during the COVID-19 outbreak and to improve the understanding of how such crises can be better managed in the future.

An app that can tell if you’ve come into contact with the virus

The PEPP-PT – or Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing– initiative brings together 130 research organizations in eight different countries to develop a tracking app for smartphones. Installing the app will be entirely voluntary and all data will be anonymized.

The app will use Bluetooth technology to identify the people that someone who tested positive for the new coronavirus has had contact with, and then notify those people. Similar apps already exist in Singapore, South Korea and China, but they can’t be used in their current format in Europe for data privacy reasons. Development work on the app should be finished by Easter, then it will be made available for free to the general public. Assistant professor Carmela Troncoso and Professors Marcel Salathé and Jean-Pierre Hubaux are heading up EPFL’s work on this initiative.

Hackathons for developing anti-coronavirus technology

EPFL researchers can also initiate new studies with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation, or take part in one of the many hackathons that are being held in response to the pandemic. One such hackathon – LauzHack Against COVID-19 – was run last weekend by EPFL’s LauzHack student association. The most promising ideas that came out of the hackathon will be developed further either through EPFL semester projects or outside the School.

EPFL also took part in another coronavirus hackathon, called #VersusVirus. It was sponsored by the Swiss federal government and brought together around 20 top-tier organizations. The event was run by EPFL’s Tech4Impact, ETH Zurich and HEG Fribourg, along with various associations and businesses.

> Learn more about the new COVID-19 research projects

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