At this stage of the global coronavirus pandemic, the impact of a COVID-19 infection is generally understood — often beginning with a mild fever and flu-like symptoms and potentially followed by a rapid decline in breathing capacity — but there hasn’t been an easy way to see how lungs are actually impacted by the disease. This week, George Washington University Hospital released a “virtual reality” flythrough of COVID-19-infected lungs in hopes that the visuals will startle viewers into keeping themselves and others safe.

The VR video was codeveloped by GWU thoracic surgical chief Dr. Keith Mortman and Surgical Theater, developers of VR imaging software that uses real-world data to create medical-grade 3D visualizations. Mortman previously used the software to show patients their lung or esophageal tumors prior to surgery but saw an opportunity to reveal the unusual way COVID-19 operates after taking a CT scan of an infected patient.

Normally opaque, the lungs are depicted as translucent blue, with infected areas in yellow. Beyond the raw impact of the virus spreading throughout the lungs, GWU’s visualization shows how the body reacts to COVID-19 by creating multiple inflammation zones, collectively stifling normal lung capacity enough for patients to require hospitalization with either a breathing tube or ventilator. “The damage we’re seeing is not isolated to any one part of the lung,” said Mortman. “This is severe damage to both lungs diffusely.”

One discovery that’s particularly concerning is the fact that COVID-19 survivors may wind up with major, lasting lung damage if the inflammation doesn’t subside over time. At that point, “it becomes essentially scarring in the lungs,” Mortman explained, and “could impact somebody’s ability to breathe in the long term.”

Mortman hopes that seeing the severity of the infection using 3D visualizations will shock stubborn members of the public into staying home, washing their hands, and following other precautions to keep themselves and their communities safe. The full video is available on YouTube here.


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