Technology innovation in the age of the current health crisis

The current public health crisis has brought changes to how we live and work. With the advent of social distancing, shelter-in-place policies, and telecommuting for those who can do so, we can only guess how long-term their impacts will be. What is clear, however, is the enormity of the crisis for anyone in the field of healthcare and all those engaged in essential work – they are truly on the front lines. In response to this unprecedented moment, scientists, engineers, and other technology innovators have stepped up to the challenge. Researchers around the world are working intently and purposefully to bring forward urgently needed treatments and vaccines, along with a raft of technology innovation delivering novel solutions to problems the crisis has brought. In response to the current health situation, and in so many cases despite it, promising new technologies are springing up across the globe. Here is a selection of innovations we have come across seeking to overcome critical challenges we face from COVID-19; we found them inspiring and think you will, too. 

Treatments and vaccines in development

Advances in genetic technology over the past 10 to 15 years have provided awesome tools: within a month of COVID-19’s emergence, researchers were able to sequence the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the single-stranded RNA virus responsible for the disease. In just a few weeks, scientists in many countries began working on vaccine candidates to deliver the sorely needed immunity completely lacking in humans. In collaboration with the NIH, Moderna Therapeutics developed a new approach to a vaccine based on the company’s RNA virus technology. The vaccine candidate has already entered Phase I clinical trials with the tests on healthy individuals in March and will be fast-tracked for Phase II as soon as the toxicology path is clear. Many challenges lie ahead for the vaccine to be declared both safe and effective, but hopes are on for it to reach the global market as soon as early 2021.  

The urgency of finding an effective treatment is not a good match with the typical long cycle of pharmaceutical development of new therapeutics from scratch, which like vaccines, must undergo rigorous testing before reaching patients. The innovators are trying to bypass the need for new drug development by working on the re-purposing of compounds already found to safe and effective by the FDA for other indications. Amongst these, Gilead has just entered Phase III clinical trials in the US for the antiviral compound, Remdesivir, which has been used to treat Ebola in the past. Remsdesivir has already been used as an experimental therapy in 1,000 COVID-19 cases and has shown promising results.

Early detection of COVID-19 has been problematic as testing has relied primarily on polymer-chain-reaction (PCR) technology, requiring specialized staff and equipment and hours to complete the amplification need to get results. To overcome this challenge, a Brazilian MedTech startup Hi Technologies is developing portable diagnostic equipment called HiLab, consisting of a mini-lab set up and a test kit. HiLab promises to deliver test results in 15 minutes without a need for specialist staff and a laboratory environment. The technology is due to become available by mid-April. The availability of quick and portable tests is essential to flattening the curve to prevent healthcare systems from becoming saturated. Rapid tests will deliver higher numbers of results to gain deeper statistical insights into the disease and the crisis itself.

Medical device innovations aid the effort

As everyone recognizes, critical medical supplies such as protective masks, face shields, and sanitizers are in extremely low supply, which has stimulated innovations attempting to develop new ways of manufacturing them, as well as better, more efficient products. Amongst these, Northwestern University researchers started 3D printing face shields, while an Italian company Isinnova, 3D prints ventilation valves, all necessary for healthcare professionals. 

Several innovators have been developing self-sanitizing and anti-viral face masks. Among them, another group at Northwestern University along with two Israeli companies, Argaman and Sonovia, report being close to releasing the improved products, in high demand worldwide. Northwestern’s self-sanitizing masks and the Argaman and Sonovia antiviral masks also offer greater sustainability than single-use surgical masks and standard N95 masks, without compromising safety. Many healthcare equipment specialists look hopefully to the safe re-use of masks to overcome acute shortages everywhere.

AI and new apps track epidemiological data

Data science and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have been dominating the innovation landscape over the past several years, and unsurprisingly, they are emerging as key supports to bolster the fight against the current pandemic. To predict new epidemics, as well as to help manage the current crisis, BlueDot uses AI to estimate viral spread from the initial epidemiologic centers outwards across borders and around the world. This predictive capacity can be harnessed to greatly enhance preparations and to introduce preventive measures ahead of time to minimize the impact of the disease. 

On the local level, MIT and Harvard researchers, in collaboration with engineers from major tech companies like Uber and Facebook, have created an open-source software called Private Kit: Safe Path. The app will enable the detection of virus cases locally to alert individuals if they have encountered someone with an active infection. This is a game-changer for social tracing to help to contain the spread, by making identification and isolation increasingly seamless, thereby cutting off flare-ups in virus hotspots.

The current healthcare situation evolves daily. Luckily, there is no shortage of innovations seeking to help. Have you come across other inventive solutions to the healthcare crisis? Feel free to share in the comments!

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