Center for Integrative Biology | U Mayor

Technology "made in Chile": the contributions of national scientists to face the pandemic


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The frenzied battle that laboratories fought around the world to find a vaccine to control the pandemic has not been the only work in the scientific world. Especially in our country, the covid-19 has motivated the generation of initiatives that show that in Chile it is possible to do quality science.

In this way, initiatives as varied as they were innovative emerged, such as tests to detect covid-19 and mobility studies to monitor confinement measures.

In this sense, universities have had to take a leading role in researching and generating scientific solutions to the pandemic, since the pandemic not only has to do with SARS-CoV-2, but with all the medical and social implications that surround this disease.

As Leonardo Basso, director of the Complex Engineering Systems Institute (ISCI) points out, “I believe that in the medium term, when one looks in retrospect at what has happened, one will find the fundamental role of science in the face of what has happened. it is a cataclysm ”.

“When we look back in hindsight, we are going to realize that science was, together with the people, on the front lines and I think we are going to understand well that a country that invests in science is a country that is better prepared. to develop ”, he highlights.

For now, the Government has arranged the delivery of funds through the Ministry of Sciences together with the National Research and Development Agency, to support projects of different kinds for a year for up to $ 90 million.

However, some houses of higher education advanced on their own and even others varied their projects to focus on helping science to face covid-19.

Although there are some studies directly related to the disease and its effects, such as the study carried out by the Department of Kinesiology of the University of Chile on the sequelae in lung function, others point to the development of technologies to detect contagion.

Quick test with saliva

This is the case of the colorimetric RT-LAMP test (cLAMP), which they called Zerocov, which allows saliva samples to be taken and the result obtained in one hour, achieving early and timely detection.

It is an experimental rapid testing system for covid-19, devised by researchers from the Universidad Mayor, together with the Center for Integrative Biology (CIB) and Genoma Mayor SpA.

According to the director of the CIB, Felipe Court, at the beginning of the pandemic it was evident that diagnostic problems were going to be generated, due to the lack of capacities to make a formal diagnosis with the PCR, which involved highly specialized equipment and reagents, to a great extent part of the world.

And although at first the objective was to carry out a rapid diagnostic test to allow the return of the research teams, basically to return to work on scientific studies, to generate a virtuous circle to maintain research during the pandemic, which is so necessary to generate positive things from science on this issue.

In this way, they finally managed to assemble and standardize a test that has been used for a long time for rapid diagnosis, which is used in remote places such as the Amazon or in Africa, where it is difficult to carry specialized equipment.

According to Court, the grace of this test is that it does not require special equipment and it is not so invasive, since it is from a small sample of saliva that the presence of viruses is searched, unlike other serological tests. of the blood, which see the presence of antibodies.

In this way, they began to use the test among professionals working in the research area, twice a week. This, because when a person is infected, they have a time that is positive for the PCR but without the ability to infect other people, which is 3 to 5 days. So if you test every 4 or 5 days, you can detect a person who is positive but is not yet contagious.

After its implementation in the laboratories, the test began to be used with certain students who had activities in the field. And currently the university works with the North Metropolitan Health Service to be able to incorporate it as Public Health.

“Our first objective was the students in the university, and we looked for how to implement rapid tests that we could do in a frequent way that were not invasive. We look for different forms of diagnoses and we find these diagnostic tests that do not require special equipment, they can be done on site, they have been used in the diagnosis of other infections in the world, and we implement it and it allows basically to make a diagnosis from saliva in any place ”, details Court to BioBioChile.

"As a second objective, what we wanted was to be able to test well in ourselves until we could be sure that it could be implemented in other groups and we are interested in it being implemented in public health and that is why we are working with the Metropolitan Health Service", he adds the expert.

Regarding the advantages, the director of the Center for Integrative Biology, highlights the speed to obtain results and that it is not invasive, since it does not use the annoying nasopharyngeal swab.

But perhaps one of its greatest benefits is that comparatively, this test can cost five times less than the PCR that is generally used. This, therefore, allows a greater number of tests to be carried out during a defined time, especially thinking of people who must constantly be undergoing the exam.

Algorithms to detect covid-19

Another of the initiatives that have stood out has been the startup eHealth Care, devised by Sabrina Sepúlveda, an academic at the Universidad Mayor and a developer in digital health, together with a multidisciplinary team that includes health professionals -such as nurses and medical technologists-, software developers and engineers.

According to the scientist explains to BBCL, this project was born as a derivation of an initial idea with an algorithm for categorizing emergencies in health centers, which is called triage, a project with which a Corfo fund was awarded.

The project was in a very advanced phase and it only remained to do its clinical validation, where they had to compare the automated emergency categorizer with the usual procedure that is carried out when entering a healthcare center, which is currently performed by a nurse with a tens, filling out a paper form with the data.

However, in the face of contingency, they gave the project a spin and generated a second algorithm using the WHO database, where all the symptoms presented by the covid patients were located, and that the users themselves had to complete on a screen.

But since it was not so different from other applications that are already in use, they decided to add a value proposition to their project.

“Our value proposition was to measure four vital signs, not just one which is what is currently used where they measure one's temperature with infrared thermometers, with thermal cameras. Because the investigations were indicating that covid patients had altered oxygen saturation and heart rate, ”explains Sabrina Sepúlveda.

“So we said let's make a much more elegant instrument to tell the patient if they have the infection or not and we measure these four vital signs through a sensor and this sensor had to have the property of being portable, wireless, that measured everything in one. , there were not several connected devices, because it was going to be more cumbersome, so we managed to do it with a sensor and with that we measured four vital signs ”, he tells us.

In this way, the patient makes his admission with the RUT, after clicking on the symptoms he presents and then measuring his four vital signs: temperature, oxygen saturation, blood pressure and heart rate.

“We use iomed, which is the internet of medical things, coordinating these medical devices with the application, with the algorithm, with the databases. And finally, the algorithm gathers the information that the patient declared, which includes six questions from the patient's medical history, such as if he declares a chronic disease, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, we cross that information, the symptoms that the patient declared, if it is that she had muscle pain, she lost her sense of smell, and then the algorithm triangulates all that information and tells her whether or not she is likely to have the infection, "says the scientist.

“We found that when testing it, at 85% confidence, the algorithm was a very good predictor of whether or not I had the infection. The patients who underwent this self-evaluation, did the PCR and tested positive, there was a concordance in these two tests ”, he highlights.

In any case, the expert recognizes the relevance that research has taken, especially in this context of a pandemic, but that the contradiction on the part of the authorities has also become evident, for example, when cutting budgets for science.

“Maybe there is an inconsistency, because one sees on the one hand that many entrepreneurs launched services and products that served as the case of mechanical fans, but on the other hand we see that there is a reduction in the research budget and in the number of scholarships that are going to be awarded in 2021, so there you feel why this is happening when you saw that scientists and also innovators and entrepreneurs were involved and why they are reducing their budget ”, he questions.


In line with things related to algorithms, also one of the important contributions in terms of technological advances, has been the monitoring of mobility in the communes under confinement, carried out by the Complex Engineering Systems Institute (ISCI).

In fact, a few weeks ago the ISCI, in alliance with Entel and Entel Ocean, launched a new interactive mobility viewer, with free and online access, which shows the evolution of mobility in each region and commune of the country during the pandemic.

This tool allows observing the variation of movement of each commune, compared as a reference the first two weeks of March 2020, understanding movement as departures outside the homes during working hours.

According to Leonardo Basso, ISCI director, points out that “we wanted to further facilitate the use and visualization of mobility data, so that the different authorities and the general public would not have to wait for us to build a specific graph or report. For this, the ISCI team developed this mobility viewer that allows observing all communes and regions, with information since March, and with fully customizable and downloadable graphics."

How does it operate? The mobility viewer allows you to build and download graphics according to communes. When selecting a region, the graph will display the most important communes and the main events associated with them, such as, for example, the implementation of health cords during the course of the pandemic, or stages of the Step by Step Plan at the regional level.

The methodology consists of determining the flow from each “home” zone -where people are frequently staying overnight- to other zones, during working hours, for each working day on weekdays. These flows can occur within the same commune or to other communes outside the home zone, which are interpreted as movements associated with mainly work activities.

In this regard, Basso details that the idea of ​​measuring mobility arose in March when the first confinement measures were just beginning to be taken, for which they thought of analyzing groups of telephones that are connected to the different telecommunications antennas in the country, and of That way you know when you move out of what is your residence.

“This data requires a lot of processing, it is complicated data, it is big data, it requires processing capacity and innovation is required to have data that can be usable, so it is good that we do it, we have the analytical capacity and the time, and we make it available both on our platform and on the platform of the Ministry of Sciences where it has been from the beginning ”, he details.

“There is information that one had certain conjectures about what could happen and the mobility reports gave us a super important reality veneer, as an example, when many argued that it was essential to quarantine, what happened in practice is that At the worst moment of the crisis, in May, June, July, we never achieved a reduction in mobility of more than 35%, that is, 6 or 7 of the trips that were made before the pandemic were still being made even when the Metropolitan region was in total quarantine ”, adds Basso.

“For example, we were able to distinguish that the most peripheral communes in each region and the poorest communes in each region had a much greater difficulty in complying with quarantines than the richest communes. We verified that a large part of this movement did not occur towards city centers, but occurred towards free fairs, which spoke of precarious problems and therefore the need for direct financial support ”, explains the expert.

“When one superimposed the mobility information with respect to the information for example of internet access penetration, then it was also found that there was possibly a problem of how much people can and know how to do online with respect to not being able to do it. That was information that was relevant and continues to be. We showed that at the end of August when there were still 26 communes in the metropolitan region in quarantine, mobility in the metropolitan region was higher than at the end of March before there was any quarantine, when people stayed at home only as a precautionary measure " , indicates the director of the ISCI. "So it is useful information, first to observe, to be able to take sanitary measures and to be able to move on to the next phase of containment, which is to test intelligently," he adds.

Regarding how the data capture has evolved and the way in which it has been adapted as the pandemic has behaved, Basso acknowledges that scientists “have been learning, we have been discovering what is more relevant, and we went from writing reports with graphs and tables that we believed were relevant, to automating everything because many times there are local and regional authorities who want to see other things that we sometimes do not analyze and that looking at them in the raw data can be super complex".


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