Crises can bring out the best in people, and the coronavirus is no exception. The level of international collaboration triggered by COVID-19 has transcended baseline expectations and historical precedent.
A raft of public-private alliances between governments, regulators, healthcare providers, scientists, technologists and businesses reveal the global community coming together like never before, ameliorating the worst effects of the virus and its impact on people – not to mention life as we know and love it.
These boundaryless collaborations are diverse: distilleries repurposing alcohol for use in hand sanitizers; sportswear manufacturers producing personal protection equipment for healthcare workers; electronics companies repurposing supply chains for the rapid production of ventilators. The pandemic has galvanized a remarkable wave of innovation and a rapid transfer of knowledge across value chains.
From Disease Tracking to Immunization
As COVID-19 passes from host to host, the ability to track its metamorphosis through gene sequencing is now crucial to discovering a vaccine. The real power of gene sequencing comes about when its mutations are compared across different populations and borders securely and safely.
When the virus first appeared in China in January, scientists there published the entire genetic makeup of the virus – the genome – online within days. By comparison, getting the SARs genome published took three months. The scientific community is now able to sequence hundreds of genomes and share the details with their peers around the world in the search for answers. Through open-source publications and preprint sites, researchers are sharing new findings of the virus’s genomic profile, with paywalls temporarily removed on any content related to coronavirus.
Meanwhile, NextStrain offers an open-source pathogen-tracking platform with powerful data visualization tools, helping scientists monitor COVID-19 in real-time using publicly available data. The goal is to aid epidemiological understanding and improve outbreak response; it’s already helped to track outbreaks of Zika and Ebola and has over 700 genomes of the new coronavirus.
Collaborating, Innovating at the Speed of Light
The ongoing crisis is pushing problem-solving to occur in record time. It took just three weeks for a team of 130 European scientists and technologists to form a not-for-profit consortium and create a framework to help governments control the spread of the virus using mobile phones. The Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) framework offers disease surveillance for governments without sacrificing privacy and economic collapse.
The framework enables anyone testing positive for COVID-19 to input a unique code into an app, triggering an automated warning to other app users whose proximity to the infected person has been recorded through Bluetooth. A central server monitors every close interaction the virus holder has had with other users over the previous 21 days. The solution encrypts and anonymizes user data, is easy-to-implement, scalable and low-cost, and does not sacrifice user privacy in the same way as other tracing initiatives have done in China, Israel, Singapore and South Korea. In fact, PEPP-PT proximity tracking is GDPR-compliant.
Collaboration works from the ground-up as well, thanks to the startup community. For example, two Estonian technology businesses recently conducted a hackathon with 1,300-plus developers across 20 countries working for 48 hours to develop a range of solutions to help ease the crisis. The effort produced tools such as the ”Corona-bot,” which extracts information from the World Health Organization and the official Estonian health board to advise people if their symptoms are COVID-19-related. Another app helps users track and compare symptoms suburb by suburb.
An Interdisciplinary & Interconnected Value Chain Emerges
What’s clear is that businesses, governments, scientists and healthcare providers are innovating rapidly. These efforts reveal not only a glimmer of hope but also a remarkable show of global collaboration in the teeth of a major worldwide crisis.
While nothing will ever beat face-to-face communication, desperate times are forcing new approaches to inter-agency and international collaboration. As technologies evolve and mature, they’re enabling nearly every part of society to strike up alliances to move solutions online in days. For their part, citizens are finding new ways to tackle isolation in support of their most vulnerable neighbors.
Where will we be in six months, a year or 10 years from now? The global response to the virus involves the same set of dynamics that drive other crises: the prioritization of one type of value over others – in this case, saving lives on an epic scale. But the accelerated collaboration between the private and public sectors fighting COVID-19 signals a profound change in the pace of how the human race innovates.
As technology accelerates the transfer of knowledge, spurring innovation, our response to the COVID-19 crisis should serve as a dress rehearsal for future catastrophes, pandemics among them. We can only hope that the deeper, wider and more extensive collaboration gained globally to fight this viral outbreak leaves us better prepared for whatever awaits us down the road.
This blog is part of our special report on the future of infectious disease. Stay tuned for more blogs on this topic.
Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.
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