How a UQ graduate is creating innovative solutions to protect frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19.

Medical surgeons putting on gloves preparing for surgery

Image: Getty Images / Morsa Images

Image: Getty Images / Viacheslav Peretiatko; Andrew Brookes

UQ PhD Graduate, Dr Rahmat Shazi, is part of a group of Malaysian professionals volunteering their time and expertise to develop innovative medical and delivery devices helping the country fight the COVID-19 crisis. Collectively known as Doctors & Design Engineers against COVID-19 Malaysia (DDEC19MY), they are innovating rapidly to get solutions to frontline workers and communities in time to save lives.

Malaysia, like most countries around the world, is navigating uncharted territory. A Movement Control Order is in place, restricting people moving across the country, and borders are closed. There is a desperate need for personal protective equipment (PPE) on the frontline and an urgency to find new solutions to address mounting challenges.

But how do you get new products from concept to market in time to save lives, particularly when you must work remotely? For Dr Rahmat Shazi, Founder and Technology Director at consulting firm, ShazInnovation Solution, this was a problem he was driven to solve.

"I see this as a biological war, a war where we have to fight an invisible enemy, and it’s going to take innovative, new solutions," he says.
Medical officers being trained on COMBAT operations

Image supplied by Rahmat Shazi

Image supplied by Rahmat Shazi

"Malaysia has a wealth of homegrown talent in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, but many of them are either not working in those fields or are based abroad.

"This is our opportunity to use local expertise to address a global problem, and, in doing so, also inspire future generations of Malaysians to consider their local options in the field."

Personal protective equipment (PPE) with plastic gloves, mask, goggles and santiser.

Image: Getty Images / Isabel Pavia

Image: Getty Images / Isabel Pavia

DDEC19MY was founded in March, when Mr Nadzri Hashim, Global Head of Engineering at Air Asia, took the initiative to devise alternative solutions to keeping frontline workers safe especially while taking nasal swabs from patients suspected of having COVID-19.

"It all started quite quickly, Mr Hashim called a few people from his trusted network and we started to look at potential responses," says Rahmat.

The group, who are all Malaysian professionals based around the world, from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne, Calgary, Toulouse and Middlesbrough, quickly confronted their first challenge – how to connect in a world that has shutdown.

"Believe it or not, we used the social platform WhatsApp to make many of our initial decisions and get the project kicked off. Through WhatsApp, we shared ideas, discussed and debated solutions, managed creative friction and, ultimately, came up with the initial idea for COMBAT."

COMBAT is a mobile COVID-19 testing unit that can test up to 1200 patients per day, approximately four times more than clinics and hospitals.

"It minimises contact for frontline workers, providing a safer working environment, performing more tests and reducing the amount of PPE needed, which is critical when it is in such short supply across the globe," Rahmat explains.
COMBAT 02 as deployed next to Kajang Plaza Medical Centre

Image of a COMBAT testing unit supplied by Rahmet Shazi.

Image supplied by Rahmet Shazi

The design phase began on 23 March 2020, and the first unit was delivered to Hospital UiTM in Selangor, Malaysia on 14 April, just 22 days later.

Upon starting, the members of DDEC19MY knew their biggest challenge would be to get the products to end users in time to make a real difference.

"If you can imagine what it takes to design, engineer and manufacture the parts for something like this, you can probably see that it would usually take months and could even take years, even without global movement restrictions and lockdowns. We didn’t have that luxury of time," Rahmat says.

The group quickly realised they needed to bring in expertise outside traditional STEM areas. "We needed diverse talents, people to tell the story, even to help us with the fabric design and modifications to the gloves for the unit.

“Today, we have people from the performing arts space, financiers and even seamstresses. And we are richer for that diversity – it has helped us move the project forward and also see different perspectives, which are critical for true innovation."

Regardless of their professional diversity, Rahmat says the group share one thing in common. "This isn't an opportunistic pursuit; we are all volunteers. This is about a real-time response to fight this virus.

“The usual end game of research projects, getting published in journals, getting companies wanting to purchase the technology, don’t matter here. All that matters is that our innovations get to the end user and can make a difference in this war.

"We are all very different personalities, with our own ideas and backgrounds, so it was critical that we were also able to find ways to communicate and put aside interpersonal differences. We work under the premise that we always remember we are fighting a virus, not each other.

"We all have the same vision, and that's been really helpful to manage creative friction that can be heightened in a project of this scale, particularly when we are sleep deprived and working long hours."

Images: Getty Images / Paul Biris; Taechit Taechamanodom

Coronavirus testing swab
Doctor holding coronavirus blood sample

Rahmat explains that the team had to negotiate an incredible number of obstacles, from government red tape to sourcing critical donor funding.

"We are a group of volunteers who have come together at short notice, so we had to fight to be heard, to get government stakeholder and financial backers on board."

The testing phase for the first prototype was completed on 23 April, with the Malaysian Ministry of Health giving the project the green light.

"We have a second prototype now out at a private hospital and a few more in production. We will continue to use feedback to refine and develop new functionality to ensure we can keep our medical staff and the community safe," he says.

Alongside the COMBAT, DDEC19MY has sixteen other projects at various stages of design and production. This also includes a modification kit for an everyday snorkel mask that includes a Heat and Moisture Exchange (HME) filter to turn it into a PPE.

"We need to be looking at what is out there in the market that can be modified to solve challenges rapidly. The snorkel is a great example of this. Someone had the idea, and we decided to just run with it and try it out.

"We put a call out on Facebook for snorkel masks and within six days, we had 223 masks in our hands to start working on the modification."

The snorkel project has been tested in a Malaysian hospital and its derivative is also being used by Doctors Without Borders in Cambodia, where protective equipment is scarce.

"We are getting good feedback from Cambodia and are continuing to refine the modification kit. It’s something that we can use here in Malaysia, but also distribute quickly to our neighbours across the pacific. If they have snorkel masks readily available, they can use the kits straight away.

"The HME filters are as good, if not better, than N95 masks, and most hospitals have a good supply, as they are routinely used by anaesthetists," Rahmat explains.

Image: Getty Images / Sebastian Condrea

Protective medical respiratory mask during coronavirus

Other projects in design include a Drone Delivery System that can be used to take testing kits from the mobile units to the hospital, reducing human contact and the need for resources, like ambulances, that could be better deployed elsewhere.

"We are even looking at creating drone airport bases for a drone fleet that medical professionals can use to not only move the testing kits but to transport critical supplies, like sanitiser, quickly and safely," he says.

"It’s never been tried before and it's a whole new business model, but when it comes to fighting this virus, nothing is off the table. We’ll do whatever it takes."

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