- From hands-free door openers that can be 3D-printed, to basic ventilators, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of urgent innovation.
- It's reminiscent of the inventions of the Second World War - when the first digital computer and rocket technology came to the fore.
COVID-19 may be having a devastating impact on our industries, social lives and personal grooming standards, but it is also prompting an outpouring of creativity in other arenas.
From Spiderman-esque wrist-mounted disinfectant sprays, to a wristband that buzzes whenever you’re about to touch your face, a wealth of new prototypes are demonstrating what human ingenuity is capable of in the face of adversity.
Here are just some of the newest coronavirus inventions.
Hands-free door openers
Several varieties of hygiene-friendly door-hook are in the pipeline – intended to help us navigate that tricky moment when we need to open doors with sanitized hands.
Epidemiologists estimate the coronavirus can live on surfaces like stainless steel for three days, so these devices could be a game-changer in environments such as hospital wards, where hand sanitation is a matter of life and death.
Some door-opening devices have already found their way to market – including the “hygienehook”, created by London-based designer Steve Brooks. Small enough to fit in a pocket and made from easy-to-clean non-porous material, the gadget is already available in four different varieties. Brooks has had requests from NHS Wales and is, meanwhile, donating a hook for every one he sells.
In an era of widespread 3D printing and high-tech software – and at a time when many large-scale manufacturers, including Dyson and Ford, are shifting their attentions to manufacturing medical hardware – small-scale producers are leading the way like never before.
And not every design needs to go to market. Welshman Wyn Griffiths devised a hands-free door opener – which clips onto door handles and can be operated using the forearm – after his wife visited a hospital and saw the difficulties staff were facing. Griffiths has since distributed the 3D design online for free and is asking people to print and distribute the handles wherever possible.
“Hopefully people who have a 3D printer can help out their local hospital or anywhere the public visits by distributing these around the country,” he told the BBC.
Masks and ventilators
Other recent patents that could genuinely save lives include a snood mask with an antiviral coating - from Virustatic Shield, which plans to scale up production to a million a week and reserve part of their stock for the UK's National Health Service.
Meanwhile, Dr Rhys Thomas of Glangwili Hospital in Carmarthen in Wales went straight to the heart of global health concerns when he devised a “simple and robust” basic ventilator designed to help patients breathe – and which also kills COVID-19.
“Although it won't replace an ICU ventilator, the majority of patients won't need intensive care if they are treated with this ventilator first,” he said.
“The machine will [also] clean the room of viral particles and only supply purified air to the patient. The patient can self-care, releasing specialist nurses for other duties.”
To take advantage of the groundswell of technological creativity and scout for new COVID-inspired strokes of genius, the California 3D modelling company CAD Crowd has launched a month-long prototypes competition.
At the time of writing, the 77 entrants range from the practical – printable protective face shields and temporary acrylic doors for supermarket fruit displays – to the ingenious, including disposable doorknob sleeves and an elbow-operated extension for lift buttons.
A number of the designs, such as foot-operated doorknobs, could have a genuine shelf-life in a world whose attitude to hand hygiene may be permanently altered.
Your country needs you
The surge in innovation is drawing comparisons to another era of great duress – and great ingenuity: the Second World War.
Several inventions that first saw the light of day in the white heat of that desperate global struggle have since become essential features of our daily lives.
Take, for instance, rocket technology, which in decades following the war helped humanity put a man on the moon and send satellites into orbit. Both jet aircraft engines and pressurized cabins were first pioneered in the 1939–45 conflict – since absorbed into commercial airline technology.
Radar first saw widespread use in the 1941 Battle of Britain, when a hard-pressed RAF fought off Hitler’s numerically superior Luftwaffe and prevented a Nazi invasion of southern England. Now it is a standing feature of missile defence systems everywhere.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.
Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.
The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.
As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.
And the list doesn’t stop with military hardware: ballpoint pens were invented in 1938, replacing messy fountain pens – and one of the first customers was the RAF, who ordered 30,000 units for pilots to use: reservoir pens tended to leak at high altitude.
Superglue was accidentally discovered in 1942 by somebody trying to manufacture gun sights, while the first programmable digital computers were pioneered by the codebreakers of Britain's Bletchley Park.
Will anything we can come up with in the COVID-19 fightback match these wartime inventions? The answer remains to be seen. In the meantime, reports of human ingenuity in the face of adversity provide a welcome glimmer of light.