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Xenex robot uses ultraviolet light to kill germs, such as coronavirus. Photo: Xenex

As coronavirus spreads across the globe, health care professionals are tapping germ-zapping robots and roving tele-doctors to help minimize human exposure to the virus.

Why it matters: Drones and other new technologies could potentially slow the spread of the illness and perhaps speed the delivery of medicines and other support where help is needed. But deploying them comes with a host of ethical questions.

What's happening: Hundreds of hospitals already use robots to disinfect operating rooms and kill MRSA and other pathogens that cause health care-associated infections. Now they want to turn them on coronavirus, too.

  • A UV emitting robot from Xenex Disinfection Services is deployed in more than 500 hospitals worldwide, including ones in California and Nebraska where there are confirmed cases of coronavirus, to destroy germs and bacteria. (It still needs to be tested on the novel coronavirus.)
  • GermFalcon, a UV robot that targets germs on airplanes, is fielding inquiries from multiple airlines, says co-founder Elliot Kreitenberg. Now he's developing a similar UV robot for hospitals.
  • Vici, a device that looks like a tablet on wheels, enabled doctors to interact with the first U.S. coronavirus patient at a hospital in Everett, Washington, according to Forbes.

What to watch: Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles can now perform a variety of tasks that could be beneficial in fighting epidemics.

  • Drones still face regulatory hurdles in the U.S. but if the FAA eventually permits them to fly longer distances, a network of distribution centers could quickly send vaccines via drone, says Justin Hamilton, a spokesperson for Zipline, a drone company that makes thousands of deliveries per day of blood and other medical supplies in Rwanda.
  • The company is already working with the U.S. Department of Defense on a rapidly deployable drone system in case of a mass casualty humanitarian event.

Yes, but: The temptation during a humanitarian crisis might be to rush technologies to the scene before they're ready, even bending regulations to do so, which would be a mistake, disaster recovery experts warn.

  • "You don't want to experiment on people and make things worse," says Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University.
  • Patients in rural areas or foreign countries might not know how to interact with alien technology, creating frustration or fear, for example.
  • Nor should robots be used to replace medical professionals or take needed jobs from those who are uninfected, Murphy added.
  • Some researchers are working on tracking and surveillance tech that would use drones to identify people through their masks, and even take vital signs of individuals in a crowd, raising privacy concerns, she said.
  • Another worry is spraying of disinfectants via unmanned drones. "Are they truly disinfecting or just practicing chemical warfare?"

Go deeper

56 mins ago - World

HRW: Over 100 former Afghan security members dead or missing under Taliban rule

Members of the Taliban movement patrol Kabul's airport in September. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Taliban have "killed or forcibly disappeared" over 100 former members of Afghanistan's security forces since the group took power in August, a Human Rights Watch report published Tuesday found.

Why it matters: It means former military members and officials from the ousted government, activists and other Taliban critics are facing peril amid executions driven by revenge — despite Taliban promises of an "amnesty" with no retributions, notes the New York Times, which first reported the news.

2 hours ago - World

Barbados becomes a republic, replacing U.K. queen with president

Combination images of Dame Sandra Mason, president of Barbados, and Britain's Prince Charles at her swearing-in ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, late Monday.

Barbados officially became a republic at midnight local time after Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the Caribbean nation's first president in a ceremony attended by the United Kingdom's Prince Charles.

Why it matters: Mason replaced Britain's Queen Elizabeth as head of state Tuesday — removing the country's final remaining colonial tie to the U.K. almost 400 years after the first British ships arrived in Barbados.

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.