Can Innovation Stop a Global Pandemic?

Sara Olson, PhD, Director, Research

There is an unfolding medical drama in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in which a previously unknown coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the region. The virus was initially thought to be confined to animal-to-human routes of transmission, as all the initial patients had visited a specific market that sells seafood and live animals. However, recent developments, including the illness striking many of the healthcare workers who had looked after those first patients, have demonstrated that the virus can be transmitted from person to person. The world gave a collective gasp at that news, recalling the all-too-recent outbreak of SARS (caused by another coronavirus), which spread rapidly from 2002 to 2004 and caused hundreds of deaths across Asia. As of this writing, cases have been confirmed in South Korea, Thailand, and the U.S., though we anticipate further spread.

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This leads us to ask the question: Can innovation stop this global pandemic? Let's look at some of the opportunities for tech to intervene:

  • Point-of-use (POU) sensors can limit the development of new animal-transmitted cases at the market itself. Using animal tracking sensors to monitor for signs of illness in the animals for sale can facilitate culling ill individuals prior to exposure to consumers, and POU sensors could be used to look for the presence of viral DNA in or on food products or prep surfaces.

  • A rapid point-of-care diagnostic test could identify the presence of the virus rapidly and effectively in traveling individuals exhibiting symptoms consistent with generalized viral infections, providing stronger confidence in containing the outbreak, as carriers of the virus not yet exhibiting fever or other symptoms would be missed by existing thermal and visual screening approaches.

  • Bioinformatics will be critical to source tracking of the viral genome sequence, identifying pathogenicity characteristics, and seeking potential treatments and/or preventative vaccinations. Any company in the healthcare industry (human or animal) should consider whether its bioinformatics capabilities can take on this analytical challenge.

  • Artificial intelligence and informatics have a role to play alongside bioinformatics in efforts to more quickly discover novel antiviral active ingredients with specific activity against this virus, to be used either as vaccinations or as pharmacotherapeutics. Collaboration here will be key: Pharmaceutical companies should engage with AI developers whose track records are proven rather than pure hype.

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In a highly global society built on a habit of frequent, multistep international travel, this virus is very likely to spread beyond its current reach and patient count. Technology developments like these have the power to at least slow the spread of future pandemics, but most of the opportunities above will require months – at least – to develop. Recalling the 2003 SARS outbreak, the WHO reports that experimental vaccines are still in development, more than 15 years later - so do not expect overnight success. Rather work now to incorporate emerging technologies and develop the skills to respond more quickly to future concerns. In the meantime, wash your hands, cover your cough, and get to work.

 

 

FURTHER READING

- Executive Summary: The Digital Transformation of Healthcare

- Blog: The 4 Major Challenges That Digital Therapeutics Face

- Blog: Chemicals and Materials in the Spotlight at Davos

- Blog: The Top 20 Transformational Technologies to Watch in 2020

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