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Fighting coronavirus: COVID-19 tests, vaccine research, masks, ventilators and more

From simple thermometers to sophisticated ventilators, plus 3D printers and robots, too.

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Jon Skillings

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Clinical test in immunology lab
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Blood testing

Around the world, medical teams and researchers have been scrambling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, from the front lines of dealing with the sick to the labs working on potential vaccines. Meanwhile, there are roles being worked out for high-tech systems including robots, supercomputers and 3D printers.

Here, a medical laboratory scientist runs a clinical test in the immunology lab at the University of Washington, looking for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 (the formal name for the new coronavirus) on April 17 in Seattle. The plasma she's examining came from donors who have recovered from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and may have the potential to help combat the disease in others.

Blood plasma donation
2 of 33 Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Blood plasma donation

The woman at left is a health care worker who'd contracted COVID-19 in March while working in the emergency room at Valley Medical Center in Renton, Washington. She's just donated COVID-19 convalescent plasma on April 17, and at right, a phlebotomist shuts down the machine at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. The plasma donation process, or plasmapheresis, separates blood plasma from red and white blood cells and platelets, and returns the cells and platelets back to the donor.

Vial of remdesivir
3 of 33 Ulrich Perrey / Pool / AFP

A vial of remdesivir

One drug that has shown promise for treating COVID-19 is remdesivir, an experimental antiviral product from Gilead Sciences. On April 29, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that preliminary data from a US-based clinical trial showed remdesivir can help patients recover more quickly. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the early results are "a very important proof-of-concept."

Red Cross volunteer with thermometer
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Red Cross volunteer

One of the most basic tools for diagnosis of COVID-19 has been the thermometer. A key indicator of whether someone might be infected with the virus is a fever. Here, a Red Cross volunteer uses a digital thermometer to measure patients' temperatures in a pretriage tent outside the hospital in Corigliano-Rossano, Italy, on March 11.

Marine Corps medic takes temperatures
5 of 33 Cpl. Rachel K. Young-Porter/US Marine Corps

Marine Corps medic

Some thermometers allow a bit of distance from the patient. Here, kitted out with protective gear including a face shield, surgical mask and gloves, a field medical technician with the II Marine Expeditionary Force does coronavirus presceening of Marines returning from deployment overseas at the Cherry Point air station in North Carolina on March 24.

Infrared thermometer
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Infrared thermometer

A variation on temperature-taking technology is the infrared thermometer, which shows hot zones on the body. This one was in use at an outdoor screening station for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 20.

'Morning check' robot
7 of 33 Chen Zeguo/Getty Images

'Morning check' robot

In Changsha, China, local technology companies have designed "morning check" robots to greet employees returning to work. The robots can test body temperature, record data, give feedback and disinfect hands, easing the burden on staff to conduct checks for symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Triage tent at Boston Medical Center
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Triage tent

It's vital for medical staffers to be outfitted in personal protective equipment, or PPE. The novel coronavirus, which emerged in December in Wuhan, China, is highly contagious, a danger both to the general populace and to the health care workers needed to care for them. Hence setups like this triage tent in use March 20 at Boston Medical Center, where patients can be evaluated before admission and treatment.

At work in the ICU
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At work in the ICU

Medical workers wearing protective gear, including face shields, look after a patient in the intensive care unit handling coronavirus patients at Erasme Hospital in Brussels on March 25. While some people who get diagnosed with COVID-19 exhibit only mild symptoms, for many the disease requires prolonged treatment in an ICU.

Doctor with ventilator control panel
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Ventilator at the ready

Coronavirus patients in intensive care may need help breathing. For that, hospitals rely on ventilators, which push air into the lungs and perform sophisticated monitoring of oxygen levels. 

At the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in Ashdod, Israel, on March 16, the director of the epidemics service checks the control panel of a medical ventilator. The high-tech gear was on standby for patients with severe respiratory distress, when COVID-19 has filled their lungs with fluid to the point at which they can't breathe on their own.

Intensive care bed
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Intensive care bed

This is an intensive care unit at the University Hospital Dresden in Germany, as seen on March 13. On the left side of the bed is a heart-lung machine, on top are the monitors for vital functions and to the right are a ventilator and infusion equipment.

Ventilator
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Aspirator

This vacuum aspirator, a device that's used to remove mucus and other bodily fluids from a patient, is part of the equipment being set up on March 30 at an emergency field hospital in New York's Central Park, with 68 beds designated for respiratory care. The facility is the work of the Samaritan's Purse organization, and it will be administered by Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Correction, April 18: This caption originally misidentified the device in the photo. It is an aspirator.

Liquid oxygen tank
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Liquid oxygen tank

At a Samaritan's Purse emergency field hospital in Cremona, Italy, on March 20, workers get ready to unload a 5,000-gallon liquid oxygen tank for use by the ICU.

Demonstration of how a ventilator works
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Ventilator demonstration

In Ahmedabad, India, on March 31, a doctor demonstrates to medical staff how a ventilator works. Hospitals weren't just having to brace for a shortage of the machines, they also needed to train additional personnel on how to operate them.

GM technician repairs a ventilator
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Repairing a ventilator

In Gravatai, Brazil, on April 22, a technician at a General Motors factory repairs a ventilator from a public hospital. At least 25 employees are working in two shifts, seven days a week, to carry out maintenance and return the ventilators for further use in hospitals.

Drive-through testing
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Drive-thru testing

Overcoming the pandemic requires determining who has the coronavirus and who doesn't, and that means testing. Here, a health care worker in full protective attire takes a sample via nasal swab from a person at a drive-thru coronavirus testing lab set up at Somerville Hospital in Somerville, Massachusetts, on March 18.

Throat culture
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Throat culture

Samples are also taken by throat swab, as here at a testing site in West Palm Beach, Florida, on March 16.

COVID-19 testing kits
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COVID-19 testing kits

COVID-19 collection kits for testing stand ready in the microbiology Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on March 18.

COVID-19 blood sample
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COVID-19 blood sample

This test tube contains a blood sample from a patient who tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Amphia Hospital in Breda, Netherlands. As of March 20, the hospital was carrying out between 400 and 500 tests a day for suspected cases of the virus.

Lab test
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Lab test

A lab technician at Amphia Hospital performs a test for samples taken from patients suspected of having COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Lab test
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Processing swab tests

A lab worker tries to isolate the presence of the coronavirus during processing of swab tests in the molecular biology laboratory of the Ospedale Niguarda in Milan, Italy, on March 5.

Results display graph
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Test results

A computer screen shows the results of a coronavirus test in the Ospedale Niguarda molecular biology lab.

COVID-19 protein structure shown on a computer screen
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Protein structure

Because this coronavirus is so new, there isn't yet a vaccine for it. That remains months away, after a progression of trials to determine both effectiveness and product safety. But work is already underway to find the right chemical compound. Here, on March 20, this computer screen at Novavax labs in Rockville, Maryland, shows a computer model showing the protein structure of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. (For more, see Coronavirus medicine: The vaccines and drugs in development to treat COVID-19.)

Respiratory virus
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Respiratory virus

These vaccine researchers at Novavax are looking at a sample of a respiratory virus...

Protein samples
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Protein samples

...while this researcher is studying protein samples.

IBM's Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
26 of 33 Carlos Jones/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Summit supercomputer aisle

Supercomputers are also being enlisted in the efforts to discover cures for COVID-19. Pictured here is IBM's Summit, the world's fastest supercomputer today. It's already been used to screen 8,000 chemical compounds in a search for medicine that could thwart the infectious capabilities of COVID-19, and researchers in that effort at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee have recommended 77 drug compounds for experimental testing.

Carbon's L1 3D printer can create a lightweight, springy midsole for an Adidas running shoe in less than a half hour.
27 of 33 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Carbon L1 3D printers

Meanwhile, 3D printers offer a potential way to quickly produce items like face shields needed in large numbers. The L1 3D printer from startup Carbon can create a lightweight, springy midsole for an Adidas running shoe in less than a half hour, and the company plans to send face shield designs to its network of customers who've bought its 3D printers. It's also working on nasal swab designs. Most 3D printers today are best suited to making plastic parts, not the cloth or filters used in face masks.

3D-printing a mask
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3D-printing a mask

At the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, Germany, a 3D printer prints a face mask on March 31. The project is still in the prototype production phase, but the goal is to make the masks available free of charge after acceptance by Halle's disaster control authority.

Inspecting a prototype from a 3D printer
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Prototype from a 3D printer

The workshop manager inspects a mask prototype from the 3D printer in the plastics workshop at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design. Currently, only up to 20 pieces per day can be printed with the thermoplastic material, but the number is to be increased.

Man wearing an N95 mask
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N95 mask

For protection against the coronavirus, not all masks are created equal. Doctors and emergency workers strive to use N95 masks, which incorporate a respirator and fit the face snugly. N95 masks are designed to block at least 95% of very small particles. These masks have been in very short supply. 

Here, a food delivery worker in Cardiff, Wales, is seen wearing an N95 mask on March 8.

First responder field kits
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First responder field kits

On March 11, a police lieutenant in Los Angeles helps assemble personal safety kits consisting of an N95 mask, work gloves and nitrile gloves for LAPD first responders, to be used to protect against exposure.

Pepper robot in Edeke grocery store
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Pepper robot

For those of us without protective gear, but who need to venture out for groceries and supplies, there are certain guidelines to follow. In some places, you may get promptings from a robot. Here, a Pepper robot from Softbank stands on duty in the checkout area of the Edeka store in Lindlar, Germany, where it advises customers to keep their distance and to avoid  "hamsterkauf" shopping -- that is, panic buying, or hoarding like a hamster.

Disinfection robot
33 of 33 Getty Images

Disinfection robot

This remote-controlled robot was put to use on March 16 to disinfect a residential area in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year.

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