Opening Up the Economy: Containing the Spread of the Corona Virus in Public Spaces

Technological innovations that help contain the spread of the virus may be the best way forward to open up the economy.

Opening Up the Economy: Containing the Spread of the Corona Virus in Public Spaces

Technological innovations that help contain the spread of the virus may be the best way forward to open up the economy.

The nature of the Corona Virus has most of the scientific community bewildered. It gives flashbacks to The Contagion. But technology and scientific progress have come a long way since the movie was released. As of today, in a span of just 6 months, a lot of research has been done, and new methodologies for testing, measuring and disinfecting have been developed, all of which, when deployed sensibly, can help save multiple lives.

Public spaces end up being the hotspot of infections, just because of the high volume of people there (when there are no lock-downs), and the big number of floating population. So if we were to measure the Corona Virus in PPM (parts per million), similar to other air pollutants, we could say that the PPM concentration of the virus in the air is higher in public spaces.

This is a fair comparison and way to look at the virus, since many studies [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] have already asserted that the virus is airborne, and that even normal breathing can release a considerable quantity of the virus load into the atmosphere in the form of aerosols of varying sizes. These suspended droplets can travel much further than 6 feet, which means that the virus spread is not contained in the place where an infected person is. With a high number of people in any space, the combined effect of multiple infected people could be that the entire enclosed space has a high concentration of the virus aerosols.

Considering this nature of the spread of the virus, a few new innovations can help drastically contain the spread of the virus and test people who could be potentially infected. To open up the economy, it is important to adopt measures that proactively contain the spread of the virus. Failing this, the economy can go into a downward spiral. If people have fear of infection, they will not go out. If they don't go out, businesses can't run, people can't work, economy goes down.

Instant Testing of the Virus

The Israeli "Breathalyzer" could be the answer to more testing, instant testing, and more accurate testing all rolled into one. Instead of the usual methods, they use the nano size of corona virus aerosols to measure the presence of the virus in someone's breath using spectroscopy. The test contraption tests the sample for frequency of vibration, which is known to be in the terahertz spectral range of for the corona virus. The virus aerosol behaves as a nano particle, with size between 100-140 nm. This makes it detectable using knowledge from spectroscopy.

The test is instantaneous and has 90% accuracy rate, which is way higher than the swab tests and antibody tests. The other up side is that if there are too many swabs to be tested, the samples get old before they can be tested, and the virus is no longer properly detectable through the swab. Antibodies take time to manifest in a person who has the infection, and hence can give false negatives for those who are asymptotic and haven't developed antibodies against the virus yet.

If the Breathalyzer can be installed as a testing station or manually managed testing kiosk in public spaces, like airports, bus stations, subways, food courts, schools, university buildings etc, it can immensely help in promptly giving treatment and quarantine to infected persons, with minimal disruption to normal activity. The mass production of the device is estimated to start in Sept-Oct 2020.

Disinfecting Public Spaces with a Robot

One of the biggest challenges right now, as many countries open up the economy, is that of disinfecting closed spaces, especially those with numerous surfaces which can be fomites. Disinfecting the very air we breathe is another challenge, since the virus remains in the air as aerosols.

This is not just important for containing the spread of the disease—ofcourse, that is important. But from a bigger perspective, the economy of many countries is standing tattered as schools, restaurants, shopping places, warehouses etc can't be opened without risking infection. If we can contain the infection, the economy as a whole can also start recovering. The lower risk of infection boosts confidence of people to visit places, and helps get businesses back on track.

A robot fashioned by scientists at MIT, has solved this problem. The robot is self operating, and is designed to not require any manual operation even for navigating through aisles. The robot uses UV radiation that kills the virus in aerosols and on surfaces.

"Specifically, the array uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA in a process called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation."

-- MIT News

The radiation is not safe for human exposure, but since the robot can map an enclosed space on its own, it eliminates the risk and trouble of involving humans.

The research team is currently working on improving the capabilities of the robot for navigating a space that keeps changing.

These two measures address the two biggest challenges of opening up the economy. We do not know for how long we will need to live with the Corona Virus. So if the economy must open, it should be in a way that does not affect people's lives adversely, and starts a virtuous cycle, perhaps a new lifestyle, of checking the spread in every way possible. This seems like the best bet to get businesses and people back on their feet.


  1. Bourouiba L. Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen Emissions: Potential Implications for Reducing Transmission of COVID-19. JAMA. 2020;323(18):1837–1838. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.4756
  2. Nardell EA, Nathavitharana RR. Airborne Spread of SARS-CoV-2 and a Potential Role for Air Disinfection. JAMA. 2020;324(2):141–142. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.7603
  3. Klompas M, Baker MA, Rhee C. Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Theoretical Considerations and Available Evidence. JAMA. Published online July 13, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12458
  4. Liu, Y., Ning, Z., Chen, Y. et al. Aerodynamic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in two Wuhan hospitals. Nature 582, 557–560 (2020).
  5. The airborne lifetime of small speech droplets and their potential importance in SARS-CoV-2 transmissionValentyn Stadnytskyi, Christina E. Bax, Adriaan Bax, Philip AnfinrudProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2020, 117 (22) 11875-11877; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2006874117


Arti Agarwal

Economist, data science, marketer, ex-SLB. Alum IIT Roorkee, MIT.

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