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USF researchers helping fight coronavirus with projects from contact tracing to sterilizing masks

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Posted at 11:53 PM, May 06, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- Researchers are moving to quickly help fight the coronavirus and future pandemics.

The University of South Florida created a COVID-19 Rapid Response Research grants program. It identified 14 projects for initial funding, with an interdisciplinary range from technology to treatment and social mitigation.

"Our sterilization technology can sterilize the masks within tens of seconds and recharge the masks simultaneously," said assistant professor of mechanical engineering at USF, Ying (Sarah) Zhong.

To address any shortages of surgical masks or N95 masks, Zhong and a team of researchers are creating tools to rapidly sterilize masks. She said one prototype includes a box that can sterilize within minutes.

Another prototype is a handheld device used to scan the mask. They've already filed a patent application.

"This [is the same kind] of technology we are expecting to use [for] sterilization of not only masks. We want to use them for different kind of surfaces. Just imagine after the pandemic, people still have to use sterilization. For instance, the restaurants, the classrooms, any shared surfaces" she said.

Another project centers around contact tracing.

"The goal of those apps is to record interactions between people and then, when after the fact, we find out that one person was infected. Then, we try to alert the people who were in close proximity to the person we know to be infected in the hope they will get tested and then will prevent the spread of the virus," said Jean-Francois Biasse, an assistant professor of mathematics at USF.

Researchers are looking at the exchange of information through bluetooth signals.

"There’s two main angles. One of them is the privacy issues. There’s a lot of concerns about the kind of potential lack of privacy that those apps could have and also investigating secure designs for those kinds of apps so that’s one major angle," said Biasse. "The other one of course is how can we measure their efficiency."

Other projects selected dealt with antibodies and immunity, susceptibility in different ethnic backgrounds, loneliness during social distancing and hurricane shelter operations during a pandemic.

The university said the goal is to scale up the projects in the next few months while longer-term federal research support is being sought after.