COVID-19: physics in the real world

27 March 2020

Scientists around the world are racing to understand more about the COVID-19-causing virus – and physicists at Oxford are no exception. 'Without physics and physicists there could be no modern technological society, from microelectronics and telecommunications, to LCD displays and PET scanners in hospitals; it is therefore not surprising that physics has much to offer in the battle against CoV2,' explains Head of Department, Professor Ian Shipsey. 'Along with my colleagues, I am incredibly proud of the combined efforts of our department and our alumni as we contribute to overcoming the global challenges we face from COVID-19.'

Here are just some of the ways the Department of Physics is contributing to the global effort to control and tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Essential research

A group of researchers lead by the Department of Physics at Oxford University is working on a new method that would allow extremely rapid detection of the virus that causes COVID-19 – in as little as one minute. Led by Dr Nicole Robb and Professor Achillefs Kapanidis, the group’s work to detect infectious diseases caused by viruses was already underway and efforts have intensified to apply the research to the current pandemic. Using influenza as a model virus, the Oxford group showed that virus particles in clinical samples can be labelled and detected in as little as one minute, substantially faster than existing diagnostic tests. The method is general and is currently being further developed for use on the SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Read more about this essential work.

Specialist expertise

Our specialist mechanical engineering and electronic engineering workshops have offered up their services from supporting ventilator production to collaborating with the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences to develop and build medical instruments to help with the treatment of COVID-19.

Eminent alumni

Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist from Imperial College London whose advice we are all relying on at the moment is an Oxford undergraduate and postgraduate alumnus. He studied physics at Oxford and went on to start his research career by doing his DPhil in quantum theory of gravity before specialising in mathematical biology.

Alumnus Alfonso Castrejon-Pita studied for his DPhil within the atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics sub-department at Oxford before also taking up a research post with us too. Today, as a professor in engineering science, he is part of an initiative between Oxford and London to develop a simple and rapidly deployable ventilator that can be manufactured easily and quickly by industry.

Alumnus Mike Fischer CBE, Director of the not-for-profit Systems Biology Laboratory, has launched the COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network donating £1 million of his own money to the initiative. He is confident that the country’s testing capacity can be greatly increased by using equipment commonly found in laboratories, and he is working to recruit labs across the country. The Department of Physics has lent its own quantitative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) apparatus to the programme. The machine was being used to observe up to 96 DNA assembly reactions in real time as part of work on nanostructure fabrication and molecular computing; it is now doing what it was originally designed for, detection through exponential amplification of genetic material from the corona virus.

Computing power

We are volunteering our computer power to help fight the COVID-19 virus through the Foldingathome project. We have allocated a significant proportion of our GridPP computing cluster – the resources used to analyse data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – to run Foldingathome’s enormous simulations to model the COVID-19-causing virus. We are also running Foldingathome on the PCs in the department as colleagues work from home. The more computers it has to help, the more simulations can be run – which increases our chances of finding ways to successfully tackle the virus.

Find out more about Foldingathome's COVID-19 work.

Collaboration with a cause

An innovative ventilator – simple and with minimal parts to allow for rapid production – is the result of an international collaboration of particle physicists of which Jeff Tseng from Oxford’s Department of Physics is one. Knowing that the gas handling systems and complex control systems used by the physicists in their search for dark matter were the same technologies required of mechanical ventilators, the group switched their focus to COVID-19. Drawing upon the cooperation of laboratories and institutes across Europe, America and Canada, the Mechanical Ventilator Milano went from conception to being authorised for emergency use by the United States Food and Drug Administration in just six weeks.

Nurturing partnerships

Thanks to the Department of Physics’ collaboration with ShanghaiTech University, the Chinese institution has donated 13,000 surgical masks, 700 medical full body suits and 800 N95 masks to Oxford University hospitals – and to be distributed around the university as required. The gift comes at a critical time when supplies are limited.

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