Astronaut 'space vest' could soon be used to monitor pandemic patients

Satellite imagery can be used to monitor animal movements and predict the spread of viruses

Space spin-offs and technology developed for outer orbit can play a greater role in health care on Earth and help avoid future pandemics, a UAE scientist says.

The technology is already aiding several aspects of public health by monitoring the environment and climate change, and in disaster relief missions.

Canadian scientists, astronauts and Nasa space experts explored how space could help during the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically by tracking infections and remote health care.

The findings, led by UAE-born scientist Dr Farhan Asrar, have been published in science journal Nature Medicine.

Everyone thinks of space travel, but there is so much more technology developed in that journey, such as camera phones, GPS or weather reports that can predict climate change on Earth
Dr Farhan Asrar, University of Toronto

“Space as a whole plays a significant role on a public health level,” said Dr Asrar, assistant professor at the University of Toronto Department of Family and Community Medicine.

“The roles we see space playing, from tele-epidemiology and remote satellite technology, look at outbreaks of disease so we can investigate them further.

“During a pandemic, satellites can be used to monitor movement of certain vectors, like birds, insects or animals that may transmit zoonotic disease."

Dr Asrar explained the information can look for patterns of virus or disease that may spread in certain temperatures.

“Satellites can track these vectors to benefit us as a global population,” he said.

During the 2013-16 Ebola outbreak in western Africa, space technology was used in two areas of risk mapping to track dense populations and monitor cases, as well as the flow of infections or temperatures that encouraged disease.

Dr Asrar led a team of more than a 100 professionals and experts from more than 30 countries to explore space exploration's role during the Covid-19 pandemic in conjunction with the International Space University in France.

Major contributors to the research included astronauts Dr David Saint-Jacques and Dr Dave Williams and Dr Helena Chapman of Nasa’s Earth Science Division.

The team presented their findings at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna, Austria.

In June 2020, Nasa, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency joined forces to develop the Covid-19 Earth Observation Dashboard.

The online portal uses satellite imagery and data to document planet-wide changes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as traffic flow, economic activity, air quality and movement of people.

Other physical products developed for space include temporary field laboratories that can withstand incredibly harsh climates and wearable vests to monitor vital signs.

The Biomonitor looks like a normal gym shirt but gives round-the-clock information on biological parameters.

It can be used in monitoring hospitalised patients with Covid-19 to reduce physical interaction and the risk of infections, or to check on patients suffering from long Covid.

“A lot of costs went into development and research, but it is the same with cell phones,” said Dr Asrar.

“They were very expensive and exclusive at the start but are now affordable and mainstream.

“It is much the same with space technology.”

Several research centres have been established in the UAE to support and develop space sciences.

A Dh100 million space research centre operated by the UAE Space Agency, UAE University and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority will act as an incubator for space research and innovation to further progress the industry.

“Everyone thinks of space travel, but there is so much more technology developed in that journey, such as camera phones, GPS or weather reports that can predict climate change on Earth,” said Dr Asrar.

“The strides that the UAE has taken in its space programme and by developing its satellites has captured the interest in this area of healthcare and engineering.

“It has great potential.”

Updated: October 30th 2021, 6:07 AM