HBKU Joins National Efforts to Contain COVID-19 Through Applied
Hamad Bin Khalifa University

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HBKU Joins National Efforts to Contain COVID-19 Through Applied Research

29 Apr 2020

HBKU Joins National Efforts to Contain COVID-19 Through Applied Research

College of Science and Engineering (CSE) develops applications and technologies to align with national COVID-19 efforts

The College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) is supporting national and international efforts to mitigate the negative repercussions of COVID-19 through applied research. 

“The mission of the College of Science and Engineering has always been to provide the best education for our students, and to seek innovative and practical solutions for current and future global challenges. Since the virus outbreak, we have delivered over 30 online courses using the latest technologies, interactive tools, and remote learning platforms such as Google Colab and YouTube channels. In fact, seven PhD and 40 master’s candidates managed to successfully discuss their thesis online, and are expected to graduate on time,” said Dr. Mounir Hamdi, founding dean of CSE.

“We have also drawn on our research expertise to join efforts to contain and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Qatar and have mobilized faculty members and resources to address the crisis and contribute to solutions. We have implemented several measures to track, evaluate, and contain the virus. Moreover, we have applied solutions to evaluate the mental health of children during this period, in addition to providing access to a virtual platform for some of our daily religious activities."

ESRA app to gauge emotions through art

To help address the potential negative impact which the COVID-19 pandemic may have on the mental health of families, especially children, CSE is developing a mobile application, ESRA, that uses AI to help families monitor the emotional state of their children by analyzing their artwork. Over time, the app will offer parents tips to boost their children's mental health.

"The application pays special attention to the well-being of families in Qatar by integrating modern technologies and providing access to families to promote healthy lifestyles at home," said Dr. Mowafa Househ, the project supervisor and an associate professor at CSE, whose team includes Dr. Zubair Shah, Dr. Younis Ait Mou, and Dr. Mounir Hamdi from CSE.

The application is expected to launch on Google and Apple stores within the next month. 

An app to reinforce positive behaviors during the self-isolation period

While self-isolation and social distancing are being applied by governments around the world, people may not fully understand the importance of adhering to these measures to avoid being exposed to the virus. An app under development by CSE raises awareness on actions that could pose a danger to users’ lives and their contacts.

The app collects data from a user's mobile phone and after analyzing the history of sites visited by the user and recent interactions using the phone’s GPS, location history, Bluetooth and traffic data, provides the user with a measure of their exposure to the virus. The app also compares the user’s current behavior with previous data to provide suggestions and reinforce positive behaviors in line with accepted best practices by international organizations. 

Touching on the benefits, Dr. Gabriele Oligri, project supervisor, said: "We believe this application effectively contributes to modifying users’ behavior, while protecting their privacy. Our ultimate goal is to provide the user with clear suggestions on how to modify daily behavior to reduce the possibility of exposure to the virus. The application does not require users to share any sensitive information, nor does it collect any user-specific information. More importantly, the application does not require any intervention from users, automatically sharing regular notifications on user behavior."

Dr. Marwa Qarqae, Assistant Professor at CSE, and Eng. Shaima Khalifa have completed designing the main elements of the app and are currently focused on technical developments to launch the project.

Smart masks to monitor potential COVID-19 symptoms

Introducing an innovative approach to measuring the human respiratory rate and tracking vital signs, the smart mask uses a multi-sensory patch to simultaneously detect the user's respirator rate, body temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. Changes in these factors are monitored to ensure early detection of COVID-19 infection through continuous monitoring using nanoparticles and polymer material.

"High body temperature, an irregular respiratory rate, and persistent dry cough are early symptoms of the coronavirus, and other diseases such as pneumonia," said Dr. Amine Bermak, the project’s lead and associate dean at CSE. “Given the virus’ ability to rapidly spread, it has become important to develop a smart, effective, low-cost mask that can monitor these early symptoms in isolated patients or asymptomatic patients to protect public health.”

The project is being implemented at CSE laboratories at HBKU, with the support of the Qatar National Research Fund and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, given its potential use in monitoring workers’ health in the Middle East.

The project has shown promising initial results and the team is currently working on extensive testing to ensure the effectiveness of this new technology, which will also provide additional assistance to people suffering from chronic diseases such as asthma, influenza, or sleep apnea.

College of Health and Life Sciences (CHLS) biomedical research addressed at preventive solutions to counter COVID-19

"Accelerating the transfer and application of applied research and expertise to community organizations and partners from the public and private sectors and non-profit organizations on COVID-19-related issues is currently a priority for CHLS and the focus of numerous projects to address challenges directly relating to the spread of the epidemic on the national and international levels,” said Dr. Edward Stuenkel, CHLS founding dean, outlining the initiatives currently underway. 

Research to develop a drug without side effects

Dr. Tanvir Alam, CSE, and Dr. Nady El Hajj and Dr. Georges Nemer from CHLS are leading a group of local and international experts representing the tech-driven medical and research community to work on laying the foundations for developing a new type of drug with no side effects, in a bid to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The drug belongs to a new class of medication developed from molecules that can be successfully applied to combat viruses.

The group includes HBKU researchers, Dr. Sohel Rahman from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, and Dr. Leonard Lipovich from Wayne State University in the US. The team is working to identify specific molecules that may target common factors in patients, and to follow patterns of disease multiplication to find a drug solution to prevent the spread of the virus in the human cells hosting it.

Dr. Alam said: "This approach will help us develop new antiviral drugs for COVID-19. We hope that these drugs will be effective in controlling the virus with limited side effects unlike the more commonly used types of antiviral drugs.”

The project is still in its early stages with tests conducted on original samples collected from Wuhan, China and deposited in public storage houses. Other samples have been also collected from European countries and the US. The team is working to validate and update its results based on more than 200 new samples collected from other parts of the world.

COVID-19 and genetic predisposition in Qatari society

Identifying genes related to susceptibility or resistance to various viral infections in Qatar, with a focus on COVID-19, is the aim of an early stage CHLS research project, in partnership with Qatar University, Qatar Genome Programme, Qatar Biobank and Hamad Medical Corporation. A team of experts from Genomics England in the United Kingdom is also involved in its implementation.

Dr. Omar Albagha, Professor of Genomics and Precision Medicine at CHLS, and Dr. Hadi Yassine, Associate Professor at the Qatar University Biomedical Research Center, are leading the project team, joined by Ms. Maria Smatti, a CHLS doctoral candidate. 

Dr. Albagha said: "The project will determine the genetic variants associated with the COVID-19 virus to predict the severity of the disease. The research will be useful in targeting people who may suffer severe symptoms and complications that can threaten the lives of patients and increase the burden on hospitals. This research can benefit the health sector in Qatar, and society members at large.”