Executives from the WHO, IBM and Johnson & Johnson weigh in: Can technology prevent the next pandemic?

The day before COVID-19 struck, it seemed that technology could solve nearly every problem we came across. Now, seven months later, we have learned that nature works in mysterious ways, creating threats and challenges, like a global pandemic induced by contact with a bat, that even technology cannot surmount.

In a panel discussion hosted by Start-Up Nation Central’s CEO Prof. Eugene Kandel during the recent New Digital Age conference, Dr. Alan Tennenberg, Chief Medical Officer at Johnson & Johnson, Global Public Health; Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to the Director General and Assistant Director General of the World Health Organization; and Dr. Michal Rosen-Zvi, the Director of Healthcare Informatics at IBM Research, shared their insights on the application of technologies and data to address the issue of global pandemics in general, and COVID-19 challenges in particular.

The panelists agreed that overall, global, open-source collaboration initiatives among governments, public health bodies and researchers are on the rise, and will likely provide the gateway not only to a forthcoming vaccine, but to better pandemic tracking, containment and treatment in the future.

In assessing how technology stands to improve our response to pandemics, Dr. Singer of the WHO asserted that areas for applying data and technology should be considered according to the three levels of existing pandemic response: At the first level are national and global leadership, which are inextricably tied to the support, engagement and trust of communities that are exposed to disseminated information. At the second level are measures to test, identify and isolate every case, which are data-rich exercises that, according to Dr. Singer, rely on a well-trained public health workforce. Finally, at the third level are new tools and approaches, such as the application of genomic data and translating it into a tool for diagnostic tests and vaccine development. Technology has a role to play at each of these levels, and, as Dr. Singer puts it, “In each of these, there are examples of good practices, and I think that there are opportunities for improvement.”

Multi-stakeholder collaboration is the name of the game

One major area of improvement is in multi-stakeholder collaborations among researchers, governments, and national and international public health and medical institutions. One area where such collaborative efforts have been particularly successful in the current pandemic is in the development of vaccine candidates. According to Dr. Tennenberg, “there are about 320 vaccine candidates that are in studies, and 10% of those are now in human testing. This has never been done so quickly, and the focus on safety has never been so great.”

Dr. Tennenberg points to one organization called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, which accelerates the development of vaccines so that we are able to address infectious disease threats more rapidly at a global scale. Overall, Dr. Tennenberg believes that the application of technology holds huge potential in the context of collaboration: “We need to be able to gather all of the information, and, with the help of new tools and new ways of analyzing the information, to be able to identify what is real from what is not. That should help us become more efficient in finding a cure, but also predicting what is likely to happen in the course of the pandemic.”

Open-source data exchange aimed at finding the best solutions

Another area of multi-stakeholder collaboration is open-source data tools for the exchange of genotypic, phylotypic and behavioral data – three types of data that are essential for understanding and controlling the virus. Dr. Rosen-Zvi explains that IBM has been collecting mainly open-source behavioral data on the pandemic, such as how individuals approach quarantine, gathering and mask-wearing restrictions, while sharing it with other major tech companies in an open-source data exchange aimed at finding the best solutions.

“As we’ve seen in this specific pandemic, the whole world took different actions, all of them aiming to control behavioral aspects of humans who are likely to spread the virus,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said at the conference. “At IBM, we realized that it is important to collect this information to better understand the nature of the interventions performed in an integrated way, allowing individuals to compare, contrast and learn from others’ experiences.”

IBM’s open-source database of behavioral information tracks the application of various solutions for virus containment and treatment at a global scale.

Will healthcare systems brave the storm?

One of the major questions that we all have regarding the impact of COVID-19 on our lives is how it will impact the future of the public healthcare systems – will they weather the storm, or will they collapse under the pressure?

According to Dr. Singer, those public healthcare systems that apply technological solutions are likely to build back faster and to maintain a better capacity for containing coronavirus overtime, which has a lot to do with exact contract tracing. “It is not only the capacity, but it’s how you use it, which goes back to foundational issues such as leadership, valuing evidence, valuing science, and really having a robust, data-driven, science-driven, public health oriented response, which, until we have a vaccine, is where we really should be focused to save lives,” he said.

Finally, when posed with questions regarding the unprecedented pandemic, panel participants remained optimistic that this is a pivotal learning moment for governments, healthcare systems and international institutions on how to effectively apply technology to deal with crises at an international scale.

“It is important to realize that this is the worst public health crisis in 100 years, and the reason is that COVID-19 spreads fast and we’re learning new things about the virus every day,” which is why it’s important to adopt a data-driven approach, according to Dr. Singer. “Countries that have done the best are those with data-driven, adaptive responses,” he said. “So, there also needs to be ongoing learning as the exercise unfolds, driven by data, driven by knowing where the virus is, how to isolate the cases, how to trace and quarantine the contacts.”

So, will technology prevail in the race for COVID-19 containment and a vaccine? The answer according to the panel of global healthcare and data experts seems to be affirmative, but it remains to be seen how the myriad sets of data and information from around the world can be organized into a coherent framework that is geared towards finding solutions for the current pandemic, and preparing for the next one.

To read more about the world in the post-coronavirus era, explore our interactive report entitled The New Digital Age.

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