How OIST and Concerned Citizens Are Working Together to Combat COVID-19

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July 2020

“My help might not be worth much…but I would like to cooperate with you to overcome this situation.” These are the words Donor Nakamura included with her gift to OIST’s COVID-19 Response Fund when it launched in the spring. Since then, many others have contributed in recognition that OIST’s work — from innovative mathematical modeling to 3D printing of face shields to antibody testing — is leading the way to benefit the health of Okinawans and people around the world.

You might think Okinawa was lucky during the early weeks of the spread of COVID-19. As cases rose dramatically across the globe, the prefecture’s numbers remained relatively low. Of course, this was not luck at all. Had immediate and stringent measures not been taken, mathematical models developed by OIST indicate there might have been thousands of people infected.

OIST President Peter Gruss shared the models’ data with the prefectural government, which used it as guidance for continued decisive action. And, President Gruss collaborated with Ryuku Shimpo, a major local newspaper, to develop a series of articles for Okinawan residents on the science of the coronavirus, the government’s measures, and how to remain safe.

Meanwhile, many OIST scientists paused their research and turned their attention to the global health crisis. They designed a creative method to replicate medical-grade face masks using everyday material, as the global supply of essential protective materials is short, and made the method available to international communities via open-source channels. They developed a process for sterilizing personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, with ultraviolet light so that hospitals can safely reuse them when necessary. And, they helped to develop antibody tests that are essential for studying immunity.

To foster those efforts and to support the local community, OIST launched the COVID-19 Response Fund. The sense of urgency about the crisis was palpable as donations quickly began to flow in from both previous and new donors from Okinawa to New York.

Donor Katsuren saw his contribution as a way to do more to combat the virus than just staying at home. “OIST is providing research and its results to Okinawa, so I thought that I could donate,” he says.

Indeed, gifts of all sizes are investments in science education, medical research, and the health of people around the world. Collectively, gifts to the COVID-19 Response Fund have totaled nearly two million yen to date. Those funds have had a direct impact on OIST’s ongoing efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic. “I am grateful to all of the donors who are standing side by side with us in the effort to support our local and global communities,” says President Gruss.

One of the early projects supported by the Response Fund was the production of face shields using a 3D printer. The benefit was two-fold: First, technicians and students working on the project discovered a way to reduce the amount of material needed for each shield, allowing them to produce more in less time. Second, in April, OIST donated 2,000 face shields it had printed to frontline medical professionals in Okinawa, protecting them from coronavirus droplets and aerosols.

Two OIST face shields
OIST 3D-printed face shields

The Response Fund also supported the production of an alcohol-based “OIST gel.” Twenty-five volunteers from different units worked on the project. Those with laboratory safety training made and bottled the gel while others designed the labels and coordinated with local organizations. The gel was distributed to the OIST campus, Chubu Hospital, and Onna Village. A local daycare teacher whose class received some of the gel said, “The kids love to chant ‘bye bye virus’ as they use it.”

With the help of OIST’s research and volunteer efforts, Okinawa has virtually eliminated community transmission of the virus. However, most of the world’s population remains vulnerable until an effective vaccine is available. That’s why OIST joined more than 150 other institutions to contribute to the COVID-19 Disease Map project. This multidisciplinary effort collects and disseminates data from around the world that scientists and others are using to study and eradicate the novel coronavirus.

The COVID-19 Response Fund will continue to play a vital role in funding scientific inquiry, partnerships, and worldwide initiatives aimed at eradicating COVID-19. More recent projects include studying the impact on the social experience and conducting PCR testing for the virus on campus to alleviate pressure on the government’s sole testing site. Efforts like these could truly benefit from the supplemental financial support provided by concerned citizens.

“We are all in this challenge together,” President Gruss says. “It is our duty to support society with the scientific expertise, resources and talent we are fortunate to have at OIST.”

To this Donor Kawasaki responds, “I really appreciate OIST’s proactive responses that have shown how basic science can have positive impact when it really matters. The OIST team that is by design very international, cross-cultural, multi-religious, has demonstrated what it means to be good citizens and what one can do in time of needs. I felt a sense of pride being a part of OIST's initiatives.”

Please join us in supporting society by making a gift to the COVID-19 Response Fund today. U.S. donors may make a tax-deductible contribution through the OIST Foundation.

“As a citizen of the prefecture,” says Donor Tamaki, “I am proud that OIST is contributing to the countermeasures for coronavirus.”

By Emily Weisgrau