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Crushing COVID

A graphic of a blue facemask

WRITTEN BY JAKE STUMP and CAYLIE SILVEIRA
ILLUSTRATED BY GRAHAM CURRY

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“Adapt or perish” was a mantra of prolific writer H.G. Wells’ to describe the necessity of evolving with the winds of life. Nearly a century after that quote from the godfather of science fiction, a sinister virus emerged in the real world and made us choose: Adapt or perish. The Mountaineer community, unsurprisingly, chose the former. It manifested in the innovations that flowed out of West Virginia University through the first 15 months of COVID-19 in the Mountain State. From investigating the uses of renewable wood to developing software for robots to communicate, researchers from all disciplines tackled new ways to thwart a new disease. And they went to all lengths to do so – even if it meant getting a little dirty.

Zheng Dai (left), an epidemiology postdoctoral researcher, and Brian Lemme, an environmental health and safety specialist at WVU, prepare to collect a wastewater sample on the WVU campus. Scott Lituchy photo.jpeg

Zheng Dai (left), an epidemiology postdoctoral researcher, and Brian Lemme, an environmental health and safety specialist at WVU, prepare to collect a wastewater sample on the WVU campus. (Photo by Scott Lituchy)

What’s in the water?

Think of biologist Timothy Driscoll and his crew as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Only they’re not green-shelled martial artists who answer to a rat.

 

Yet they do spend a bit of time lurking around the sewers to do battle with an archenemy – SARS-CoV-2, not the supervillain Shredder.

 

Since summer 2020, Driscoll and his cohorts have collected wastewater to test the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19. That’s because infected people shed virus particles through their feces when they use the bathroom, and wastewater testing can detect the virus before symptoms appear.

 

The project has grown from the Morgantown campus to various parts of the state.


Read more: It’s in the water: WVU scientists turning No. 2 into a No. 1 predictor of COVID-19 infections .


Seeing the forest for the trees

 

As hospital rooms piled up with COVID-19 patients, healthcare professionals and first responders reported an urgent need for personal protective equipment, or PPE. This led to researchers pursuing seemingly off-the-beaten path approaches to fulfill that request.

 

Gloria Oporto, associate professor of wood science and technology, had researched woody biomass, derived from timber, for food packaging and pharmaceutical applications. She thought to herself, “Why can’t we use renewable materials, such as wood derivatives to supplement the PPE?”

 

Oporto reached across colleges to Rakesh Gupta, a chemical engineering professor, to develop and test antimicrobial, renewable mask biofilters constructed of composite biomaterials.

 

Read more: WVU researchers tap into wood for protection against COVID-19.


Robot: ‘Be our guest, be our guest’

 

Ajay Aluri, director of the HIT Lab, tests a robot designed for use in the hotel industry. Brian Persinger Photo.jpeg

Ajay Aluri, director of the HIT Lab, tests a robot designed for use in the hotel industry. (Photo by Brian Persinger)

Like any industry that relied on face-to-face interaction with others, hotels became a place where proper physical distancing morphed into an anxiety-induced challenge.

 

Enter Ajay Aluri and the Hospitality Innovation and Technology (HIT) Lab at the Chambers College of Business and Economics.

 

Aluri, founding director of the HIT Lab, and his students developed software aimed for use in robots.

 

“We are programming the robot to actually talk to customers,” Aluri said. “You might go into a hotel and you can ask the robot about the protocols in place there. We also want the robot to detect if people are wearing masks and to remind them of social distancing. We can even program them to compliment people on their masks.”

 

As the virus persists, hotels may lean toward this trend, cutting down on person-to-person interaction and limiting exposure.

 

Read more: Coming back from COVID.


Public Health for public good

 

While many of us had the luxury to stay home and social distance during the onset of the pandemic, the houseless population was not afforded such a safety net. In March 2020, Michael McCawley, clinical associate professor, and his students did “street rounds” in Morgantown, where they checked on unsheltered individuals and coordinated with local officials for surveillance of COVID symptoms. They even helped arrange for shelter for houseless individuals in the Eastern Panhandle so they could safely quarantine.

 

Elsewhere in the School of Public Health, the Office of Health Services Research, led by Adam Baus, launched an online map of statewide COVID-19 testing sites as they were being established. The office quickly developed a COVID-19 resources page and collaborated with multiple partners across the state to compile and deliver pressing information.

 

And, in an ongoing effort to keep the campus community as safe as possible, the School of Public Health has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the year in MASCUP! (the Mask Adherence Surveillance at Colleges and Universities Project).

 

The purpose of the study is to estimate the percentage of people within the WVU community wearing masks correctly, as observing mask use can assist universities with determining the adherence among students, faculty and staff to inform public health decision-making.


Breaking down the strain outbreaks

 

Peter Stoilov helps lead the laboratory efforts of a statewide whole genome sequencing effort that detects COVID-19 variants in West Virginia. Zane Lacko photo.jpeg

 Peter Stoilov helps lead the laboratory efforts of a statewide whole genome sequencing effort that detects COVID-19 variants in West Virginia. (Photo by Zane Lacko)

Peter Stoilov, associate professor of biochemistry, equates genomic sequencing to reassembling a one million-piece jigsaw puzzle.

 

If the pieces don’t fit, you’ve got a virus mutation.

 

In early 2021, Stoilov was charged with heading up the laboratory efforts of a statewide partnership between WVU Medicine, Marshall University and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to identify SARS-CoV-2 variants. He and fellow scientists detected West Virginia’s first three cases of the “UK Variant” – a more transmissible mutation – in February.

 

Read more: Making the pieces fit: How WVU, Marshall and the state of West Virginia detect new COVID-19 variants.

 

Say it, don’t spray it


 

You don’t need a science or medical degree to make an impact in alleviating COVID.

 

You can be a singer or fashion designer. Or both.


Kym Scott, director of choral activities, recognized that singing and performing arts in disposable or smothered-against-the-face masks produced an unappealing, muffled sound.

 

She leaned on her previous experience as a fashion designer to solve a problem unforeseen by non-entertainers.

 

Scott developed a “performer’s mask,” which projects a few inches away from the face and has a sturdy, lightweight framework that keeps the wearer from sucking in the fabric like a DustBuster.

 

Read more: The masked singers: How a WVU choir director composed the perfect masks for performance art .

 

For even more stories, videos and photos of how the WVU community plugged through the first year of COVID-19, read more on WVUToday.

 

What are your favorite stories of how Mountaineers innovated and persevered through the pandemic? Share your stories below.