Advantech supports testing for coronavirus

Author: Tony Milne, Business Development Manager, Telco IoT, Advantech

Author: Tony Milne, Business Development Manager, Telco IoT, Advantech

Background

Identifying potentially sick workers is a logical step for those who manage critical functions, such as in healthcare, public transport and law enforcement.  Tests before operating on a patient, flying an aeroplane, driving a train or conducting a high-speed car chase can save lives.  Infections with viruses and bacteria affect performance and yet until now there has been little control.  One common symptom is a rise in body temperature and testing for this is not just effective for COVID-19, but for any infectious disease causing a similar effect.  

Viral infections in particular will remain a long-term health and social problem.  Unlike bacterial infections, which only slowly develop immunity to antibiotics, the rapid mutation of a virus means that neither vaccines nor herd immunity will provide total protection.  Viruses that attack the respiratory system are much more resistant to vaccines than, for example, those that prefer the blood, nervous and lymphatic systems such as polio and smallpox.  Automated systems for monitoring the population are therefore an important method to minimise disruption caused by pandemics to the healthcare system, education and economy.

Details

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 type of coronavirus, which typically appears as upper respiratory tract infections but, in the more severe case of lower respiratory tract infection, it can lead to pneumonia and other complications. 

Coronavirus infections of the lungs are long lasting and harmful.  A typical coronavirus lung infection can take two weeks to clear up.  As well as directly affecting critical organs, a long infection leaves patients vulnerable to other diseases so, even when they recover from the first infection, they may continue to require treatment and care for other infections or conditions.  

Therefore, COVID-19 is primarily a problem of healthcare resources.  Government attention has sought to minimise the impact of the disease on healthcare services. This is especially true in the hospital intensive care units that are the only places where these vulnerable and infectious patients can get the treatment they need without putting themselves or their carers at risk.

Governments rely on three basic strategies to minimise the impact of COVID on their healthcare services: 

  1. Social distancing through self-isolation, lockdown and bans on social gatherings.
  2. Testing of those who arrive in a territory, area or facility, especially for those who show symptoms or have been in contact with those infected.
  3. Obligatory isolation (quarantine) for those infected, those arriving from hot spots, and for the vulnerable, such as medical staff, the old and those with compromised immune systems.

While everyone can help with the first action by following national and local regulations, and the third is restricted to professionals in law enforcement and healthcare, comprehensive testing requires organisations and facilities to implement control processes with the co-operation of their staff and the public.

Testing is a strategy to reduce the number of unidentified carriers of the virus in circulation who would otherwise infect others.  Testing does not need to identify everyone in a community for it to be effective; the identification and isolation of even small numbers of contagious spreaders will reduce the numbers infected significantly.  Testing thousands is much cheaper than treating a single patient.  However, testing is still difficult to manage on a large scale, and the measures for isolation and social distancing actually make it harder to test people.  

There are three kinds of testing that are useful to identify those who carry the virus.  First, there is testing for the virus itself, which is the most difficult and expensive test to perform, but the best because it shows that the person is actively infected and capable of infecting others.  Then, there is the test for the antibodies, which reveals if patients have ever suffered from the virus, but not whether they are still contagious; the results from this test, similar in cost and complexity to those for the virus, are less useful as they produce additional cases to isolate.  However, antigen testing is a good indicator of the overall level of infection, and the antigens may be useful as plasma to boost the immune system of infected patients.  In previous pandemics for SARS and MERS, antigen testing showed conclusively that coronaviruses are much more widespread and much less dangerous than thought when purely those most ill were analysed in the middle of the panic.

Finally, there is symptomatic testing.  Coronavirus symptoms include fever, cough and lethargy.  They are similar to those for influenza.  Monitoring for obvious symptoms like coughs and fevers can facilitate the selection of candidates for more expensive, complicated or unpleasant testing.  This can significantly reduce the cost of testing and improve results.  Testing for fever is commonplace at airports and other crowded places during outbreaks of notifiable diseases, and is the most widespread method, using portable electronic thermometers.  However, this testing is itself a risk for those who are therefore obliged to encounter large numbers of people.

If a doctor or nurse is to be in contact with infected patients, then they not only need to wear protective clothing, but they need to change it after each contact.  Testing carries the risk that the tester will spread infections.  Human testers breathe in, attracting virions in the air, contaminating their masks; touching people can contaminate gloves.  Breathing out through the mask merely spreads the virions in the direction of other people.  Touching other people with the same gloves hands them the infection.  Maintaining surgical procedures in a test centre could be prohibitively expensive.  Waste protective equipment adds to the waste that must be burnt, increasing the pollution which is itself a risk factor for respiratory infections.

Advantech has been helping those tasked with testing the public and patients in hospitals with a range of technology.  Advantech is already a leader in the manufacture of healthcare computing and diagnostic equipment.  The most familiar of these to anyone who has visited a hospital as a patient is the system that provides entertainment at the hospital bed, with television, internet connection, games and movies available depending on the institution and country.  While entertainment may seem trivial in the middle of a pandemic and panic, the isolation that many hospital patients feel is at least alleviated by these systems.

As well as entertainment, Advantech is a leader in medical diagnostic systems, used by doctors and nurses for a wide range of applications, including surgery, diagnosis, reporting and point of care.

COVID-19 is now adding new medical applications, including robotics.  The use of robots is nothing new.  Their use for home help is well established in Japan and other countries that enjoy high technology and a senior demography.  These robots mainly serve as companions, monitoring the patients’ condition and reporting alarms.

Advantech is working with several companies who are now taking this idea further and developing robots to monitor people in areas of high affluence.  They can detect those showing symptoms of COVID while remaining perfectly immune to the virus itself, an immunity which human testers cannot achieve.  The testing system minimises the danger to those who are not presenting symptoms as well as those carrying out the testing, while allowing the valuable medical professional resources to concentrate on those patients who actually need their support.  

Carrying the latest in fanless, lightweight embedded computers and on-board cameras, robots can test people for COVID symptoms or mask compliance.  Artificial Intelligence is used to analyse the images that provide temperature data and facial recognition technology is used to measure only the skin temperature of the head, and the wearing of a mask.  Those with high temperatures can be separated to sterile areas where the medical staff carry out further detailed analyses to confirm or deny the cause, and those without a mask when it is necessary can be separated for compliance training.

In China, monitoring travellers’ temperature is well-established.  However, until now, testing always required a human intervention.  Humans are limited in terms of the number of tests that they can carry out, and their competence also varies as they fatigue or suffer distractions.  A robot, however, benefits from the traditional reliability of machinery; whatever it does, it can do 24/7 as long as its power supply remains charged.  It is also much faster, treating ten or more people a second for a single system.

Although robots are useful for their mobility, for many applications this is not necessary.  At the entrance to hospitals or hotels, schools or offices, stationary systems will be sufficient to test those coming in through the main entrances.  Where the people are regular visitors, such as in a school or office, the information about infection can back up the normal access control system through AI-enhanced facial recognition.  Such a system can warn security personnel who can prevent those infected from entering or leaving, and those who are free from infection have confidence that their workplace is not a threat to them.

As well as monitoring people, Advantech equipment can monitor spaces.  Lockdown relaxation regulations are likely to include limitations on people in pubs and bars, meeting rooms and train compartments.  Occupancy monitoring permits the counting of people and the raising of alarms if the numbers of occupants exceed these limits.

In addition to helping companies develop these monitoring systems, Advantech has also helped manufacturing companies affected by the pandemic.  Some factories had to shut down, although the initial public restrictions in China occurred during the New Year break when many factories were shut anyway.  Other factories found that their products were no longer required, while demand for personal safety equipment soared.  Advantech helped one customer start an immediate daily production of five million surgical masks; this required the design and installation of a complete new industrial network, including the management system.

Advantech is supplying a wide range of products to help protect society from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.  As the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial computers, it has a wide range suitable for robot or surveillance applications.  In addition to the computers, Advantech supplies thermographic cameras, network switches, Wi-Fi access points, device servers and cellular routers.  Advantech and its partners provide the facial recognition software, fever screening applications, the tracking system for infected patients, and the counting system for social distance monitoring.

In order to ensure that Advantech’s own products remain safe to use in the most hazardous conditions, it is upgrading touch-panel computers to have anti-microbial properties.  Scientists and doctors have long known that metals have protective properties, using copper alloys on doorknobs and banisters to minimise transmission, or silver compounds to minimise infections in wounds, and gold for plates and cutlery to protect food.  Now, silver is the active ingredient in the latest touch-screen technology, the Antimicrobial Corning® Gorilla® Glass.  Used on Advantech’s range of computers specially designed for use in high-traffic retail applications, the glass allows the increased rhythm of sanitization as well as regular contact from multiple clients or operators.