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Covid-19 update: 6 August 2020

06 Aug 2020

A round-up of this week's coronavirus-related news and countermeasures from the photonics industry.

An international initiative called HemoCovid-19, led by research institute ICFO and Hospital Parc Taulí, both based in Barcelona, Spain, is testing a biophotonics tool for intensive care units to help clinicians to better manage severely ill Covid-19 patients.

The bulk of the research on the Covid-19 pandemic, say the Barcelona researchers, has focused on the detection of the disease, the development of vaccines and on understanding its basic mechanisms. Among many different findings, it has been demonstrated that the microvascular health may play a key role in the evolution of the disease in Covid-19 patients.

Need for speed

When lockdown occurred in Spain, a team of ICFO researchers and experts in the field of diffuse optics led by ICREA Prof. Turgut Durduran, got together to develop possible ideas based on photonics technologies that could help Covid-19 patients with adequate treatments. They rapidly worked online to take a commercial, near-infrared spectroscopy device and customize it with their algorithms to provide an evaluation of a patient’s microvascular health.

“Working on this project during lockdown was fascinating and extremely fast”, emphasizes Durduran. His team, involving postdoctoral fellows Marco Pagliazzi, Lorenzo Cortese and application developer Umut Karadeniz, begun a collaboration with intensivists at Hospital Parc Taulí, led by Dr Jaume Mesquida, and together developed a set of hypotheses and corresponding protocols to test endothelial and microvascular dysfunction in Covid-19 patients.

The collaboration was enabled by biophotonics technologies that utilize near-infrared light to measure blood oxygen saturation, volume and blood flow. The first device was sent to Hospital Parc Taulí in March and was tested on Covid-19 patients. Afterwards, the extent of the collaboration increased in such magnitude that an international consortium named HemoCovid-19 was formed with Ariadna Martinez and Martina Giovannella from the ICFO knowledge and technology transfer team.

The HemoCovid-19 consortium uses the response of the microvasculature in the peripheral (in this case forearm) muscles to prolonged arterial cuff or blockage, i.e. induced by a device similar to a common blood pressure measurement unit, as a biomarker of endothelial and microvascular health.

Sandia method prioritizes Covid-19 research

Covid-19 researchers the world over face a daunting task of sifting through tens of thousands of existing coronavirus studies, looking for commonalities or data that might help in their urgent biomedical investigations. The first Covid-19 search developed at Sandia National Laboratories identifies, arranges and codes relevant documents.

To accelerate the filtering of relevant information, Sandia has assembled a combination of data mining, machine-learning algorithms and compression-based analytics to bring the most useful data to the fore on an office computer. In its initial effort, investigators were able to whittle down 29,000-plus published coronavirus studies to 87 papers by identifying language and character similarities in a matter of 10 minutes.

“Medical and epidemiological experts can have near-immediate access to existing pertinent research without being data scientists,” commented Sandia computer scientist Travis Bauer. “With some refinement, this new process can clarify questions our public health experts need answered to fast-track Covid-19 research, particularly as new studies quickly emerge.”

Bauer and a team of data scientists, engineers, a human-factors expert and experts in virology, genetics, public health, biosecurity and biodefense developed and ran two different search studies. The experts studied “Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosol droplets and other matrices,” drawn from the March 18 U.S. Department of Homeland Security master question list, intended to quickly present the current state of available information to government decision makers and encourage scientific discussions across the federal government.

Sandia Labs is seeking inputs and collaboration with a larger community of researchers and developers in extending and applying the code to further refine the algorithm and user interface. The search studies in this project were conducted through Galen-view. This software is available on GitHub.

Flir Systems has launched an Occupancy Management Solution for its Brickstream 3D Gen2 camera system to automate occupancy counting within high-traffic and capacity-limited areas. To support social distancing guidelines during and following the Covid-19 pandemic, the Occupancy Management Solution provides organizations with a real-time capacity counting and display tool for multiple entries and exits.

“Many organizations are manually measuring occupancy, but this process is often inaccurate, cumbersome and expensive,” said Paul Clayton, General Manager, Components Business at Flir Systems. “We addressed this challenge by introducing a scalable and automated monitoring solution suitable for a variety of locations.”

The Occupancy Management Solution is platform agnostic with an integrated IoT architecture, which can be implemented within existing Wi-Fi access points, offering a complete edge-based solution with the Brickstream 3D Gen2 hardware. It provides a simple display dashboard for capacity updates that can be viewed by staff or customers on devices with a web browser. It may be used as a stand-alone or integrated into existing perimeter systems.

NIST studies masks’ effect on facial recognition

Now that so many of us are covering our faces to cut the spread of Covid-19, how well do face recognition algorithms identify people wearing masks? The answer, according to a preliminary study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is with great difficulty. Even the best of the 89 commercial facial recognition algorithms tested had error rates between 5% and 50% in matching digitally applied facemasks with photos of the same person without a mask.

The results were published this month as NIST Interagency Report NISTIR 8311, the first in a planned series from NIST’s Face Recognition Vendor Test program on the performance of face recognition algorithms on partially covered faces.

“With the arrival of the pandemic, we need to understand how face recognition technology deals with masked faces,” commented Mei Ngan, a NIST computer scientist and an author of the report. “We have begun by focusing on how an algorithm developed before the pandemic might be affected by subjects wearing face masks. Later this summer, we plan to test the accuracy of algorithms that were intentionally developed with masked faces in mind.”

The NIST team explored how well each of the algorithms was able to perform “one-to-one” matching, where a photo is compared with a different photo of the same person. The function is commonly used for verification such as unlocking a Smartphone or checking a passport. The team tested the algorithms on a set of about 6 million photos used in previous FRVT studies.

“We can draw a few broad conclusions from the results, but there are caveats,” Ngan said. “None of these algorithms were designed to handle face masks, and the masks we used are digital creations, not the real thing.” Key findings include:

  • Algorithm accuracy with masked faces declined substantially across the board. Using unmasked images, the most accurate algorithms fail to authenticate a person about 0.3% of the time. Masked images raised even these top algorithms’ failure rate to about 5%, while many otherwise competent algorithms failed between 20% to 50% of the time.
  • Masked images more frequently caused algorithms to be unable to process a face, technically termed “failure to enroll or template” (FTE). An FTE means the algorithm could not extract a face’s features well enough to make an effective comparison in the first place.
  • The more of the nose a mask covers, the lower the algorithm’s accuracy. The study explored three levels of nose coverage — low, medium and high — finding that accuracy degrades with greater nose coverage.
  • The shape and color of a mask matters. Algorithm error rates were generally lower with round masks. Black masks also degraded algorithm performance in comparison to surgical blue ones, though because of time and resource constraints the team was not able to test the effect of color completely.

NASA research projects probe Covid-19 impacts

The Covid-19 pandemic has touched most aspects of human life. In recent months, NASA has initiated research projects focused on how the human response to the pandemic has affected our environment, like how air quality has improved in the wake of reduced vehicular traffic in many places.

For example, how have production disruptions affected agriculture and food supply? What about our ability to forecast water availability in coming months? How do changes in activity levels affect environmental conditions?

NASA's Earth Science Division recently selected three new projects that aim to answer these and other pandemic-related questions for Rapid Response and Novel Research (RRNES) awards.

RRNES is funding quick-turnaround projects that make innovative use of the agency's resources and data to better understand regional-to-global environmental, economic, and societal impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new projects join a growing list of RRNES research projects currently underway.

Shutdowns in response to Covid-19 left many farmers facing two distinct problems: labor shortages brought on by travel restrictions, and falling demand resulting from the closures of restaurants and schools. Realizing that their labor costs would exceed the value of their crops, some farmers decided to forgo harvesting them.

The economic downturn and related unemployment put food security at risk for many people, especially in developing countries. Import and export restrictions, Covid-19 outbreaks in and around port cities, and other supply-chain disruptions have all added to uncertainty in agricultural markets. In order to monitor the development of crop conditions globally, these factors and others need to be taken into consideration.

Carl Zeiss Meditec revenue drops due to pandemic

Reporting its financial results, this week, Carl Zeiss Meditec generated revenue of €967.9m in the first nine months of fiscal year 2019/20 (prior year: €1,027.6m), a decline of -5.8%, compared with the same period of the prior year. Earnings before interest and taxes decreased to €111.9m (prior year: €184.2m). The EBIT margin was 11.6% (prior year: 17.9%).

“The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic impacted us significantly, particularly in the third quarter of fiscal year 2019/20. Although there has already been a slight recovery in some parts of APAC , the measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe and North America had a marked effect on our customers and thus demand for our products,” commented Dr. Ludwin Monz, President and CEO of Carl Zeiss Meditec.

Revenue in the Ophthalmic Devices strategic business unit decreased by -7.0% in the first nine months of fiscal year 2019/20, to €709.1m (prior year: €762.7m). Revenue in the Microsurgery SBU decreased by -2.3%, to €258.7m (prior year: €264.9m). Revenue in the EMEA2 region decreased by -12.8%, to €268.8m (prior year: €308.2m). Declines were recorded particularly in the markets worst affected by the Covid-19 pandemic – in Western Europe, the UK, Turkey and the Middle East region. In contrast, in Germany, a recovery was well underway towards the end of the reporting period.

Looking ahead, Dr. Ludwin Monz said, “As already announced in July, we are projecting revenue of around €1.3bn for fiscal year 2019/20. This is based on the assumption that the markets will continue to recover and that no additional measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic will be necessary.”

Rheinmetall expects its PPE sales to hit €100 million in 2020

Diversified technology, defense and industrial company Rheinmetall has been awarded a major order for personal protective equipment for frontline medical staff and care providers.

The German federal authorities have contracted with the Düsseldorf-based security and mobility specialist to supply the country with personal protective equipment worth around €16 million. Booked in July, the latest order encompasses respiratory masks of various types as well as protective suits, goggles and gloves.

To date, the high-tech group has supplied government agencies and public authorities with around twenty truckloads of protective equipment, primarily FFP-2 respiratory masks and simpler surgical masks. The Group expects total sales of PPE to reach €100 million in 2020.

With demand for PPE in Germany still high, the German government has now entered into an exclusive framework agreement with the Rheinmetall Group, covering the supply of millions of items of medical-grade protective equipment in the coming months.

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