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TU Graz: Research on the Coronavirus Pandemic

12/15/2021 | Planet research | FoE Advanced Materials Science | FoE Human & Biotechnology | FoE Information, Communication & Computing | FoE Mobility & Production | FoE Sustainable Systems

By Birgit Baustädter

The coronavirus pandemic has also left its mark on TU Graz. Numerous works from different disciplines contribute to the fight against Covid-19 and a better understanding of it.

The Covid19 pandemic also led to diverse research projects at TU Graz. © rost9 – AdobeStock

How classrooms can be effectively ventilated:

Christina Hopfe and her team from the Institute of Building Physics, Services and Construction at TU Graz are sharing promising findings on how to improve the situation in classrooms: In autumn 2021, the researchers, led by Robert McLeod, equipped two classrooms at the Sacré Coeur School in Graz with a low-cost and simply built extract ventilation system based on a concept from the German Max Planck Institute, as pilot tests. The system removes stale, aerosol-laden air via extractor hoods and at the same time provides a continuous supply of fresh air.

Using commercially available components, most of which can be bought directly in DIY stores, this system can be built for material costs of around 500 to 700 euros per classroom. Explanatory videos (in English and German) illustrate the construction and installation of the system and these are available  on the website www.coved.tugraz.at and the TU Graz Youtube platform, with written DIY instructions to follow by mid-August. "With well-designed and installed exhaust fans, the risk of infection is about eight times lower than current practice. Every classroom (and/or communal room in the kindergarten) can be easily and inexpensively retrofitted with such an effective extract ventilation system. It would be a great contribution to reducing the risk of infection and improving indoor air quality in all educational buildings," says Christina Hopfe.

Such as how drug production can become much faster:

Two years after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, there are numerous vaccines that reduce the likelihood of infection with coronavirus disease and protect against a severe course of it with great success. In the drug sector, on the other hand, the search for effective remedies is proving tough. Recently, there has been some movement in the market, and the first active substances that minimize the risk of severe infection have been approved. But vaccination remains the most important tool against the pandemic. And according to Johannes Khinast, the head of the Institute of Process and Particle Technology and the research center RCPE (Research Center Pharmaceutical Engineering), this is also due to the production process of medicines, which stands in the way of rapid distribution: “We currently produce tablets in batches – so one step at a time followed by a break for inspection and acceptance. It takes between six months to a year.” Khinast and his team have therefore developed what is known as continuous manufacturing, as the scientist explains: “We are thus switching to continuous production, which is not only faster but also safer.” With the new process, which is already in operation at Campus Inffeldgasse in the Pilot Plant at the RCPE, the production time can be reduced to one to two weeks. Quality control of the finished tablets takes place at the end of the process and automatically.

What can be read from changes in lung sounds:

Sounds from the human body play an important role in medical diagnostics, as they can indicate various diseases. In particular, altered lung sounds such as crackles, wheezing or hissing can be signs of a serious illness, but are difficult to distinguish from normal lung sounds. A research team at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) has therefore developed a computer-assisted method that supports diagnosis and provides clearer examination results. The method is based on a multi-channel recording device plus the associated computer-aided diagnostic system. The researchers would like to develop the system further now so that it can also detect cases of Covid.

How the pandemic changed our emotions:

Jana Lasser, a researcher at the Institute of Interactive Systems and Data Science, conducts research at the interface of psychology and computer science. In concrete terms, for example, together with David Garcia – professor at the same institute – she has investigated how the mood of users can be examined using anonymized app data. To do this, they used data from an app called Youper, which is particularly popular in the US and allows users to log their feelings. The research showed that fear and anxiety were predominant in the first phase of the pandemic. During the further course, however, the users mainly stated that they were sad and depressed. But there were also positive results at the time of the survey. Both stress and fatigue decreased over the course of the pandemic at the time of the survey.

How nursing homes can be effectively protected:

Another research project by Jana Lasser together with CSH Vienna resulted in a detailed epidemiological model for nursing homes during pandemics, where the combination and timing of protective measures is crucial. The project team developed an agent-based simulation tool that takes into account the behaviour of the people in the residential home as well as the vaccination coverage, vaccination protection and testing possibilities. In this way, a wide variety of scenarios can be run through and appropriate deductions can be made. The data comes from the nursing homes of Caritas Vienna. Based on the simulations, targeted testing strategies were introduced in individual homes as early as autumn 2020. In these homes, infections were the exception - at a time when vaccination was not yet available. The goal of the project was and is to protect the residents as well as possible from infection and at the same time to restrict their quality of life as little as possible.

How data can support management of the pandemic:

Data, simulations and statistics have been with us since the first day of the pandemic and, among other things, attempt to visually depict complex situations. For example, the company Invenium – a spin-off of TU Graz – models mobility behaviour in Austria using anonymized mobile phone data to show how effective the various exit restrictions were during the lockdowns.

At the Institute of Applied Information Processing and Communications, the Cryptography and Privacy working group deals with the security of data collected and analysed during the pandemic. Cryptography expert and working group head, Christian Rechberger, for example, assessed whether the much-discussed data registers containing information on Covid-19 patients for pandemic management could be implemented in a data protection-compliant manner. And yes, that is possible – using the latest encryption methods: “Together with international colleagues, we have developed new cryptographic methods since the beginning of the pandemic that could be used for such applications, among others,” Rechberger says. At the same time, the Institute, together with the Know Center competence centre, developed the Covid heat map, which could show contagion hotspots by means of likewise anonymized data.

Professors Ernst Stadlober and Wolfgang Müller explain the relevance of statistics and good data preparation in their article “Statistics: A compass in the data age”.

How rooms could be made Covid-safe:

The pathway by which corona viruses are transmitted is from one person’s respiratory tract, through tiny particles called aerosols in the air, to another person’s respiratory tract. Measures such as compulsory masks, distancing rules and regular ventilation are therefore being used in the fight against the pandemic in an attempt to prevent transmission via virus-contaminated aerosols. The team of the Institute of Process and Particle Technology accompanied the development of an analysis procedure that can check the risk of infection indoors and identify areas that are particularly at risk or have particularly low levels of contamination. For this purpose, a tracer gas was developed that is as similar as possible to the behaviour of infectious aerosols. Also, inexpensive, heatable dummies were designed that simulate the influence of a human body on the particle movement in space. The system is actually implemented by an indoor hygiene specialist, who now tests offices for infection risks on request and designs preventive measures.

TU Graz researcher Johanna Pirker reports about her everyday life during the pandemic in the article “Talking about... Life as a researcher and everyday life in time of coronavirus”.

How teaching has changed in the time of Covid:

The Teaching and Learning Technologies team at TU Graz, led by Martin Ebner, has intensively researched aspects of teaching during the pandemic. In several published papers, the researchers deal, among other things, with technology-supported teaching, e-learning and its rise during the pandemic, the technical prerequisites among students in the first semester and what students consider to be "good online teaching" in the first weeks of the lockdown.

Jana Lasser, together with Timotheus Hell, Vice Rectorate for Academic Affairs at Graz University of Technology, and David Garcia, also investigated how universities can safely allow classes to resume in attendance during the pandemic and still minimise the risk of infection. They used a calibrated, data-based simulation of medium-sized universities with 10,755 students and 974 staff. It concluded that with a vaccination coverage rate of 80 per cent, as currently seen among students in Austria, universities can safely return to attendance with mandatory masks or an occupancy reduction of 50 per cent.

How literature and film have changed:

It is not only our social life that has changed fundamentally during the Corona pandemic of recent years. The virus has also left traces in literary and cinematic works. A research team at the Institute of Interactive Systems and Data Science at Graz University of Technology is currently investigating what these traces are. Started in January, the project collects these so-called corona fictions in a database and analyses, among other things, how the topic COVID-19 influences the fictional narratives, which stories are new, how the corona fictions differ from previously published texts with a similar topic and what place the virus itself has in the stories.

The results will be collected and published on the project website at https://www.tugraz.at/projekte/cofi/home/.

In the article “Lecture Hall for Home” on the podcast service Aircampus, teachers describe their new teaching methods.
And in the article “Digital teaching in the time of corona”, Robert Kourist grants insights into his project on the LabBuddy tool, which brings lab exercises into the digital space.