The sudden emergence and rapid spread of a novel coronavirus, now called Covid-19, is a reminder of the power of infectious diseases. It also offers insights into how innovation and technology are better equipping us to handle public health emergencies and contain the spread of diseases.
The exponential growth of connectivity — and the access to the wealth of data it offers — allows health officials to quickly track the spread of disease, giving vulnerable populations vital information. Facebook has generated maps that display population density, demographics, and travel patterns, enabling researchers to decide where to send supplies or how to mitigate an outbreak. Similarly, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are working to identify and eliminate misinformation about the coronavirus, directing users to reliable sources at the CDC and WHO.
When SARS first broke out in late 2002, it took scientists more than a year to sequence the genome of the virus. This time around, the genome of Covid-19 was sequenced in less than a month after the first case was identified. Similarly, researchers developed the first diagnostic test for the virus soon after the first public announcement was made about it. Veredus Laboratories in Singapore has said the company will soon release a “Lab-on-Chip” detection kit that can be purchased commercially. It will allow patients to be tested for three kinds of coronavirus within two hours.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has also proven effective in advancing public health. BlueDot, a Canadian company, uses AI to scan 100,000 online articles in 65 different languages daily for public health information. This approach was so effective that the company was able to alert clients about the coronavirus before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization alerted the public. Health apps with chatbots are also using artificial intelligence to screen people who are feverish and coughing and advise them whether they should be evaluated for infection with the coronavirus.
Metabiota, another health tech company, offered early and accurate analysis about the spread of Covid-19, predicting it would reach South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan one week before it was reported inside their borders. In years past, researchers used AI to predict Zika outbreaks and to trace the insects that spread Chagas disease. By helping track and contain the spread of disease, these technologies may someday stop epidemics before they cross borders.
Innovation is also improving how we care for those people sickened by infectious diseases. During the West African Ebola crisis, tech innovations in protective gear for caregivers and smartphone thermal imaging apps helped detect irregular body temperatures. 3M has responded to the coronavirus outbreak by increasing production of technologically advanced face masks that, when combined with good habits such as regular handwashing, can help protect travelers and others vulnerable to the disease. Two Israeli startups are working on washable, reusable masks embedded with antiviral and antibacterial agents that could prove more effective than disposable masks.
Blockchain is an innovation that can help streamline medical supply chains, ensuring that doctors and patients have access to the tools they need when they need them and preventing contaminated items from reaching stores.
As we’ve seen in the wake of natural disasters, drones can deliver medical supplies to remote or quarantined areas. This could be critical to controlling infections by keeping some health workers out of hot zones. Drones can also move faster than ambulances in crowded, urban areas.
Even teleworking, enabled by technology, can slow the spread of infection. Some of China’s biggest tech companies, including Alibaba and Baidu, instructed their employees to work from home after the Lunar New Year. In earlier years, this would have ground business to a halt. Thanks to technologic innovations, companies can continue to work, their employees meeting virtually with international partners and colleagues in a way that keeps everyone safe.
The growing possibilities of telemedicine will help patients get the care they need, without putting doctors at risk. Remote patient monitoring enables earlier — and more accurate — diagnoses. Remote care — powered by 5G — is already being used for remote diagnosis of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, where doctors are already stretched thin.
In the U.S., one patient in Washington state is being treated for the coronavirus by a robot named Vici, through which he communicates with his care team. In China, a robot named Little Peanut transports food to patients quarantined in a hotel. In one Chinese hospital, patients hand over trash and bedsheets to robots.
Similarly, hospitals and airports are using technology to monitor patients and disinfect facilities. BioSticker measures an individual’s temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, and coughing — the symptoms of coronavirus — and can transmit updates every 10 minutes. GermFalcon, a germ-killing robot with strategically placed ultraviolet-C lamps, was developed to sanitize airplanes from most viruses on surfaces and in the surrounding air.
These advances show the great things that can happen when medical expertise and tech innovation are brought together. It’s the reason why my organization, the Consumer Technology Association, has partnered with the World Bank Group on the Global Tech Challenge. It calls on tech companies around the globe to develop innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
The coronavirus outbreak is one of many public health crises we will face in the coming decade. But with the right minds on the job and plenty of collaboration, we can create a world that’s up to the challenge of meeting them.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, a U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies, and author of the book “Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation” (William Morrow, 2018). The views expressed here are his own.