Research initiatives to fight COVID-19

EPFL is up and running where its research activities can contribute to fight against COVID-19. This page presents current research projects at EPFL that address the pandemic.

The EPFL COVID-19 academic committee has given the green light to twenty research projects directly addressing the COVID-19 crisis. In their research, teams from all the Schools work on priority aspects of the pandemic: preventing or tracking contagion, cure and vaccines, diagnostics and testing, and policy and data. Several teams are working together with partner institutions in Switzerland.

Selected projects by category

Un nanovolcan pour étudier les cellules cardiaques, 4 sep. 2019
Preventing or tracking contagion

Prof. Tamar Kohn, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC)

In partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG) and the Centre hospitalier universitaire vaudois (CHUV)

Project summary:

In this project, we apply wastewater-based epidemiology to track the dynamics of the COVID-19 outbreak. SARS-CoV-2 is shed in the feces of infected persons 1-2 weeks before cases are confirmed clinically. Tracking SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater can thus inform on the outbreak dynamics well before clinical data can. Using daily samples from five large wastewater treatment plants, which jointly capture >700’000 people, we monitor the dynamics of the COVID-19 outbreak in Switzerland. Our data allow policy makers to quickly adapt public health mitigation strategies based on disease trajectory, potentially saving lives, and allow an earlier return to normality.

>> Press release:

Prof. Paul Dyson, School of Basic Sciences (SB)

Project summary:

The project is concerned with the development of a transparent and non-toxic coating for glass that rapidly decontaminates (destroys) COVID-19 and other pathogens as they come into contact with the glass, significantly reducing the lifetime of the virus on the surface. The coated glass could be used to reduce viral levels in indoor environments, especially in hospitals, in public transport, on screens in banks/shops, etc., where airborne virus levels can be particularly high.

Dr. Vivek Thacker and Prof. John McKinney, School of Life Sciences (SV)

Project summary:

Severe cases of COVID-19 typically present with infection and inflammation of the lower airways. There is currently no effective treatment; patients are treated symptomatically with oxygen and ventilators. We rapidly adapt a recently developed lung-on-chip infection model to study how the disease develops in the lower airways and whether drugs already approved for human use can be repurposed to reduce infection and inflammation.

Un «filet de sécurité» pour de nouvelles immunothérapies, 3 fév. 2020
Cure and vaccines

Prof. Bruno Correia, School of Engineering (STI)

In partnership with VIB Ghent

Project summary:

The Laboratory of Protein Design and Immunoengineering (LPDI) leverages its expertise in computational structure-based design to engineer protein-based therapeutics to target SARS-CoV-2. Specifically, based on the structural knowledge of the viral proteins that are important for viral invasion, the LPDI designs antivirals using large-scale computational simulations and experimental high-throughput screening. In a parallel effort, it engineers protein-based nanoparticles presenting viral proteins in an immunogenic format. Viral inhibition assays and animal studies are performed to evaluate the activity of the designed molecules.

Prof. Caroline Tapparel of the University of Geneva, in collaboration with Prof. Francesco Stellacci, EPFL School of Engineering (STI)

In partnership with Centre médical universitaire of University of Geneva (CMU-UniGE) and EPFL School of Life Sciences (SV)

Project summary:

SARS-CoV2 is currently causing an unprecedented pandemic with a huge number of deaths and a dramatic medical, societal and economic impact. Vaccines are the best weapon against infection, but because they are pathogen-specific, they are not suitable for emerging viruses. A collaborative effort was set up 5 years ago between the group of F. Stellacci, nanomaterial scientist at EPFL, and the group of C. Tapparel, virologist at UNIGE, to develop broad-spectrum virucidal antivirals. One of the designed compounds, which has already been shown to be active against many distinct viruses including respiratory syncytial virus and herpes virus, also shows activity against SARS-CoV2. We plan to extensively validate the antiviral activity against SARS-CoV2 in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo to bring the molecule as quickly as possible to clinical use.

Prof. Beat Fierz, School of Basic Sciences (SB)

Project summary:

Peptides show high promise as inhibitors of coronavirus virulence. Novel peptide inhibitors, designed at EPFL, require structural and functional optimization as well as substantial testing for potential use as therapeutics. Within this collaborative project, the laboratory of biophyiscal chemistry of macromolecules (LCBM) will develop, synthesize and optimize alpha-helical peptide inhibitors against SARS-CoV-2 proteins critical for virus entry and replication.

Un appareil portable pour la détection rapide du sepsis, 22 jan. 2020
Diagnostics and testing

Prof. Sebastian Maerkl, School of Engineering (STI)

Project summary:

The Maerkl lab repurposes a high-throughput microfluidic diagnostics platform we previously developed to SARS-CoV-2 serological assays. Our platform has the potential to measure over 1’000 serum samples in parallel and significantly reduce reagent consumption. This high-throughput microfluidic platform and a prototype cell-free assay will hopefully expand SARS-CoV-2 testing capabilities and capacities in the short- to medium-term.

Prof. Jacques Fellay, School of Life Sciences (SV)

In partnership with EPFL SCITAS platform

Project summary:

The variability observed in the course of COVID-19 makes the existence of human genetic factors influencing the response to SARS-CoV-2 very likely. To search for genetic variants predisposing to the most severe clinical presentation of the disease, we sequence the genome and the blood transcriptome of selected COVID-19 patients younger than 50 without comorbidity, who require ventilation in an intensive care unit. The identification and characterization of genetic variants and expression profiles responsible for severe COVID-19 in otherwise healthy individuals will help uncover the genes and pathways that play a crucial role in viral pathogenesis and in anti-viral response, which might inform drug and vaccine development.

EPFL CONNECT, 18 nov. 2019
Policy and data

Prof. Jean-Pierre Danthine, Managing Director of the Enterprise for Society Center (EPFL-UNIL-IMD)

Project summary:

The Coronavirus pandemic is an urgent and dire health challenge. At the heart of the difficult decisions taken by authorities in the fight against the disease is the tension between the need for radical and early preventive measures, on the one hand, and on the other the perceived necessity to minimize the economic and social costs of the disruptions imposed on society by the measures themselves. Teams of researchers affiliated with the E4S Center (EPFL-UNIL-IMD) explore several aspects of this tension between sanitary and economic concerns, particularly in view of being better prepared in the event of new pandemic outbreaks.

Dr. Tom De Geus, Mario Geiger, Leonardo Petrini and Prof. Matthieu Wyart of the School of Basic Sciences (SB)

Project summary:

EPFL scientists and students propose an interactive game “Save the City”, in which the user will be faced with the challenge of managing the novel coronavirus outbreak. They will be given options of governmental actions, such as testing and different degrees of confinement measures, as well as individual action of varying degrees of social distancing. The goal is that the user will realize that it is the actions of individuals that crucially matter, much more than many of the actions that a government can take at much higher societal cost. The game will tunable by policy makers to the current situation, so that members of the public may be to re-invited to assess their commitment once normalization might make them drop their guard.

>> Check an interview from RTS radio

Prof. Jacques Fellay,  School of Life Sciences (SV), and Prof. Jean-Pierre Hubaux, School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC)

Project summary:

A proper understanding of COVID-19 requires accessing data that is collected around the planet. Global sharing of this data will face the well-known hurdle of data protection. In this project, we make use of MedCo, a system that enables computation on data without moving it or decrypting it. MedCo has already been installed in three Swiss University hospitals (read the news).

Prof. Pascal Frossard, School of Engineering (STI)

In partnership with Swiss Data Science Center (SDSC)

Project summary:

The current COVID-19 crisis requires a coordinated national and global effort to understand the spread of the disease as well as the effect of mitigation measures. To maximize the efficiency of data analysis and modeling efforts, it is critical to provide access to aggregated, curated and trustworthy data. The Swiss Data Science Center (SDSC) has initiated a project to aggregate various data sources from around the globe in a collection of curated datasets on the open Renku platform. The goal of this project is threefold: 1) to provide a one-stop shop hosted on EPFL servers for high-quality, well-curated data collected from different EPFL initiatives and beyond; 2) to provide an easy-to-use and reproducible environment for data-driven research collaborations between scientists from various disciplines, therefore maximizing visibility and impact of their work; and 3) to develop new algorithms and computational methods to characterize the dynamics underlying the spread of the pandemic so as to guide the design of policies and programs to better address future epidemiological outbreaks.

Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, Prof. Claudia Binder, Prof. Daniel Gatica-Perez, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC)

In partnership with the University of Lausanne and the Université catholique de Louvain

Project summary:

Researchers from EPFL and UNIL invite citizens and the EPFL and UNIL communities to participate in a survey and join a Citizen Science Research Team to tackle the current COVID-19 crisis. The aim is to come up with coping strategies for the new living and working conditions in times of COVID-19 and to improve the understanding of how such crises can be best mastered in the future. We kindly ask you to spread the call and help us gather as many people as possible to contribute with their experience and creativity!

Prof. Dominique Foray, College of Management and Technology (CDM)

Project summary:

This project is an attempt to provide the takes of innovation economists on the current pandemic. It is addressed to the general public and focuses on questions related to science and innovation policy. The first part of the project aims to explain the root causes for a general underinvestment in R&D, with a particular focus on vaccines. The second part explores several aspects related to the current science and innovation policy reactions. The third part of the project will assess some potential long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on science, R&D and innovation.

>> Link to the full paper

>> Read an article of Le Temps Newspaper

>> Read an article of Voxeu organisation

Prof. Michel Bierlaire, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC)

Project summary:

The alarming predictions of existing models for the COVID-19 spread have convinced the public authorities to take exceptional measures of confinement in order to save thousands of lives. Unfortunately, the social and economic costs of such measures are huge. Our research objective is to investigate if measures explicitly accounting for the mobility behavior of individuals would have a significant lower cost, while achieving the same health goals. Designing such measures requires more detailed mathematical models, where the mobility behavior of the population is explicitly represented.

Prof. Marcel Salathé, School of Life Sciences (SV) and School of Engineering (STI)

Project summary:

This project will build network-based models in order to assess the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies, such as testing, isolation and quarantine (TIQ). The models are based on those already developed for the spread of influenza and measles. The goal is to adapt them to the spread of COVID-19 and to expand them to allow the study of different implementation strategies, such as for example targeted versus randomized TIQ.
Shutdown measures are not economically sustainable for more than a few weeks, and intensive TIQ will be necessary to avoid further strict shutdowns, as demonstrated in several Asian countries. While logistical challenges remain, we hope that our framework will be able to guide policy decisions based on the best use of undoubtedly limited resources to perform TIQ.

Special collaborative project

Prof. Carmela Troncoso, School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC)

Project summary:

EPFL is conducting pioneering research for the development of a digitally scalable contact tracing system with the long-term goal to support national health systems that have a strong focus on data privacy, GDPR compliance, and interoperability across borders (Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing- DP-3T), and for the development of epidemiological models, with an initial focus on the spread of COVID-19 using real-time data integration and artificial intelligence (AI), to further predict pandemic spread.

>> more details

Community actions and Open Science

Dr. Klaus Schönenberger, EPFL EssentialTech

Project summary:

EPFL also cares about the situation in low-income countries, which will have to face situations such as COVID-19, and many more, with weak health systems. Even without COVID-19, every 49 seconds a child in respiratory distress dies simply because they lack sufficient oxygen to breathe. Hospitals and clinics in low-income countries suffer from chronic shortages of medical oxygen, which is essential for critical care and treatment of infectious disease such as COVID-19 and pneumonia. Transportation of oxygen cylinders is expensive, and intermittent power means that existing devices designed to concentrate oxygen from room air are not reliable. Together with the DESL led by Prof. Mario Paolone, the LFIM led by Prof. Wendy Queen, the EssentialMed Foundation, as well as CPHD in Kenya, the EssentialTech Centre is undertaking an ambitious program to develop an innovative, reliable, and low-cost oxygen concentrator, together with a maintenance and training program. The goal is to ensure that every patient with respiratory distress has access to medical oxygen.

Prof. Véronique Michaud, School of Engineering (STI)

Project summary:

In March 2020, a group of doctors, professors, researchers from various institutes, industry and health care experts from across Switzerland spontaneously assembled with the goal to combine their expertise in an effort to address, coherently and collectively, the multifaceted problem of supplying health-care workers and the population with adequate protection during the COVID-19 crisis. This consortium, named “ReMask”, collaborates with the National COVID-19 Science Task Force by supporting its expert group in infection prevention and control. The partnership aims to provide evidence-based recommendations regarding mask use, sterilization methods and to support the industry in its effort to design and manufacture masks, and as well as authorities in testing mask deliveries from abroad.
EPFL participation in this consortium is through the Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites (Prof. Michaud) involved in the testing of surgical mask materials and quantification of their potential degradation after use/sterilization, as well as the Laboratory of Virology and Genetics (Dr Priscilla Turelli) for advice on virology aspects.

Prof. Felix Schürmann, EPFL Blue Brain Project (BBP)

In collaboration with ETH Zürich and Spiez Laboratory

Project summary:

With Switzerland starting to transition out of lockdown, testing for SARS-CoV-2, being a cornerstone of all response strategies, ismore important than ever in order to contain the risk of a renewed increase in cases as public life slowly picks up again. Ensuring an adequate number of daily tests for this task requires precise and timely distribution of equipment, supplies and other resources. To support this endeavor, the EPFL Blue Brain Project and ETH Zurich, as part of the National COVID-19 Science Task Force, are collaborating with Spiez Laboratory on an online platform, Academic Resources for COVID-19 (ARC), to match criticalsupport needed by Switzerland’s diagnostic laboratories with the support offered by the Swiss academic sector.

Prof. David Atienza, School of Engineering (STI)

Project summary:

According to statistics published by the WHO, 67.7% of people who contract COVID-19 have a distinctive, dry cough. Researchers at EPFL’s Embedded Systems Laboratory quickly realised that artificial intelligence should be able to identify such a distinctive sound, and that this could provide an automated, centralised way to diagnose the disease on a portable platform. The CoughVid initiative aims to provide a free and simple diagnostic tool through a website, available here.

Prof. David Atienza, School of Engineering (STI)

Project summary:

Set up as a direct response to the COVID-19 epidemic, helpfulETH is an active research initiative based on collaborations across the ETH domain, research centres and Swiss industrial partners. The aim is to lighten the load of medical practitioners during the crisis, in any way that can be provided by state of the art technology. Teams of highly capable engineers are working together on a range of carefully selected projects in order to tackle vital challenges, including improving the treatment of patients, the hygiene of medical intervention, the sharing of knowledge and the recycling of vital equipment.

>> See website

Prof. Georg Fantner and Prof. Jamie Paik, School of Engineering (STI)

Project summary:

We investigate the suitability of full-face snorkeling masks to be used as respiratory aids for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment, with the aim of reducing aerosol formation. Although many patients would greatly benefit from breathing help as provided by CPAP devices, their use is not recommended by many national health organizations because of aerosol formation in conventional masks. These aerosols can be contaminated and lead to infection of healthcare workers and other patients. Our approach uses hermetically-sealed full-face snorkeling masks to contain the aerosols. The exhaled air can be filtered through medical-grade HEPA filters for decontamination. Such masks would provide a simple CPAP device to greatly ease the treatment of less severe COVID-19 cases that do not need a full ventilator, or for patients who are already on the road to recovery.


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