To commemorate 10 years since the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) was established, the university’s president Dr. Peter Gruss reflects on OIST’s connection to Okinawa in a four-part series focusing on the economy, education, environment, and health, respectively. The focus of this final installment is the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Okinawa, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll. As a prime international tourism destination, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the economic hardship for many Okinawans. Meanwhile, domestic tourism has fueled waves of COVID-19, with Okinawa often surpassing Tokyo in the proportion of new cases. The heightened caseload has strained the healthcare system, particularly on Okinawa’s smaller, remote islands, where many elderly live, and where hospital beds and access to medical supplies are limited.
From the start of the pandemic, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) has been working to support the Okinawa Prefectural Government, providing data and supplies needed to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, said Dr. Peter Gruss, the CEO and President of OIST. He continued, “In the first few months, there was a worldwide deficit in virtually everything, from protective equipment to knowledge about how the virus spreads.”
As the first cases of COVID-19 arrived on the islands and swelled in number throughout April 2020, OIST researchers provided models to Okinawa Prefecture that predicted the spread of the coronavirus under different containment measures, to help advise the government on what restrictions were needed.
At the same time, the strain on global supply chains resulted in shortages of hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment. In response, many different research units joined forces to share resources and expertise, manufacturing essential supplies for frontline healthcare workers and the local community. In a voluntary effort led by two PhD students, OIST made and gifted over 900 liters of alcohol-based gel to the local community, including Chubu Hospital and Onna Village.
For frontline healthcare workers, OIST provided 800 3D printed face shields, which can effectively protect the wearer against coronavirus-laden drops and aerosols. An additional 1350 face shields were then distributed at the request of the Okinawa Prefectural Government. OIST researchers also built and donated sterilization units, which use UVC light to sterilize up to 400 N95 masks a day, to local hospitals.
One of the most crucial contributions, President Gruss emphasized, is the ongoing work of the OIST PCR testing facility, which not only provides testing for the OIST community, but also supports the Okinawa Prefectural Government initiatives. The PCR facility at OIST was the third one established in Okinawa for COVID-19 testing.
“So far, we have provided over 50,000 PCR tests in less than two years, which is a great milestone,” he said. “PCR testing is crucial for monitoring and preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Currently, our work with the Okinawa Prefectural Government has focused on frontline healthcare and emergency workers, as well as those in the local community who are most vulnerable to the virus, like those who live in care homes or attend day care centers.”
OIST has also established a program that uses a fingerpick blood test for check for the presence and quantity of antibodies against COVID-19. Prior to the vaccine rollout, presence of antibodies meant that the individual had previously contracted COVID-19, and so could be used to measure the prevalence of COVID-19 within Okinawa.
After a pilot study in August 2020 testing members of OIST for COVID-19 antibodies, the antibody testing team then worked collaboratively with the Okinawa Prefecture Government to test 4500 samples taken from patients admitted to hospitals for non-COVID-19 reasons. The team also conducted smaller-scale studies to find out whether some frontline workers, including firefighters, vets and emergency medical technicians were more at risk of contracting COVID-19.
This year, OIST researchers have also been working closely with Naha Medical Association to study the long-term immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine. The research team are analyzing samples of blood taken from 96 vaccinated Okinawans five times a year, and are tracking changes in the levels of antibodies and immune cells, called T cells, that protect against COVID-19.
“This study is really important for public health policy, as over time, levels of T cells and antibodies can start to drop. Tracking this change can help the government determine when booster shots of the vaccines are needed,” explained President Gruss.
Scientists at OIST are also working to develop their own vaccine that could one day protect against future COVID-19 variants. Currently, their work is progressing through the pre-clinical stage.
Other research activities include the development of a chip that can quickly and cheaply detect the presence and quantity of antibodies in a sample without the need of a lab, and a mask charger that can sterilize and boost the effectiveness of N95 masks, surgical masks, and even some homemade cloth masks. On a more fundamental level, researchers are studying the shape of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the behavior of turbulent flows, like coughs, in order to gain insight into how the virus spreads and infects new hosts.
Finally, in addition to the scientific research taking place, President Gruss recognized the work of POWER club (Promotion of Okinawan Welfare, Education and Resources club). Run by OIST student volunteers, the club routinely conducts donation drives on campus to collect essential items like food, masks and diapers. The supplies are then distributed to residents of Onna who have lost their jobs or income as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. So far this year, they have collected 150 kilograms of food, including rice, pasta, and beans.
“Throughout this pandemic, it’s been clear to see that many from the OIST community, from professors to students, have wanted to contribute in some way,” said President Gruss. “Through constructive partnerships with Okinawa Prefecture and local charity organizations, we have been able to seize opportunities to drive COVID-19 research and support the local Okinawan community.”
Vol.1: OIST domestic economic impact is ¥228 for every ¥100 invested: What's behind it?
Vol.2: Educating and inspiring Okinawa’s future generation
Vol.3: Okinawa’s natural environment is under threat, how can scientists help?