12 May 2020

7 technologies with a vital role to play in global health crises such as COVID-19

COVID-19 has demonstrated the multifaceted ways in which technology can be used to handle public health emergencies. A new wave of innovation has revealed what human ingenuity is capable of in the face of adversity.

As the pandemic has spread, technological applications and initiatives have multiplied rapidly in an attempt to control the situation, treat patients and develop vaccines. We have selected seven technologies that have been used to manage the spread of COVID-19, that will likely become invaluable in dealing with future health crises. 

 

1 - IoT-enabled drones

IoT-enabled drones have been used in a variety of innovative ways; monitoring quarantine measures, facilitating aerial broadcasting, spraying disinfectant, conducting aerial thermal sensing, monitoring traffic and delivering medical supplies in infected areas. These uses are extremely effective as they significantly reduce the number of necessary face-to-face contacts, reducing exposure and transmission rates. It may be useful for public health systems to consider incorporating drone technology into their planning of mitigating the spread of future infectious diseases.

 

2 - Robots

Robots have been deployed across the world to contain the spread of COVID-19. The testing of robots in public has been fast-tracked, and robotic developers have responded quickly to changing demands. A key use that has emerged is for robots to provide services and care for those quarantined or practising social distancing. They can even act as medical assistants, carrying out tasks such as taking patients' temperatures. Robots have also been used to disinfect whole hospitals, decontaminate public / private sites, handle biohazardous waste, and deliver food and medication. Like drones, they have emerged as an extremely effective measure to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission.

 

3 - Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Companies have been using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning in order to create and test new medicines. For example, At the University of South California labs, Machine Learning is being used to adapt existing drugs for COVID-19 treatments. The software analyses how various drugs work and their potential effect on the virus. AI has also been used to track the epidemic in real-time, enabling organisations to predict where the virus might appear next and develop an effective response. 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 they were able to predict the spread of COVID-19 before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization alerted the public. It is clear that both AI and Machine Learning have a vital role to play in predicting future outbreaks and creating new medicines.

 

 4 - Real-time occupancy monitoring

Occupancy monitoring in buildings has long been a valuable tool, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it a necessity. IoT sensors can accurately track key factors including real-time people count, density in a given area, distance between occupants and movement between zones. Real-time alerts can then be used to manage the flow of people, avoiding overcrowding and potential transmission. Another important way in which occupancy data can be used is to inform cleaning regimes and schedules. Understanding the areas of buildings that have been used the most, or perhaps not even used at all, can ensure that cleaning is more focused and effective. Having occupancy sensors installed in buildings will play a key role going forwards, as it is the most effective way to enforce social distancing regulations.

 

5 - Blockchain 

Blockchain applications can provide a robust, transparent and cheap means of facilitating effective decision-making, leading to faster responses during emergencies of this kind. Blockchain can improve diagnostic accuracy and treatment effectiveness, track medical supply chains, manage medical data and identify disease symptom patterns. Over time, blockchain applications can monitor disease outbreaks by creating secure ledgers that are updated hundreds of times per day. Blockchain can also reduce uncertainty and provide an automated platform for recording and exchanging consistent factual information between multiple parties. Throughout the current pandemic, it has certainly emerged as a technology that will have an increasingly vital role to play in future emergency responses. 

 

6 - Synthetic biology 

In response to COVID-19, synthetic biologists are applying cutting-edge tools to speed up the development of a successful vaccine. Traditionally, a virus is studied by isolating it from cells of an infected patient and growing it in a petri dish. However, when it is difficult to access physical samples,  researchers can use a synthetic version of the virus, known as an infectious clone, in order to begin studying it immediately. Using synthetic biology, scientists can run computer models of millions of different protein sequences to find one that will spontaneously form the ideal nanoparticle. A new type of vaccine that can be stored at warmer temperatures, removing the need for refrigeration, has already been engineered using a synthetic protein scaffold. Synthetic biology is going to become essential in the advancement of vaccination development, revolutionising the way vaccines are designed, produced and stored. 

 

7 - Nanotechnology

Nano-based products are currently being developed and deployed for the containment, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19. An experimental nano-vaccine has become the first vaccine to be tested in a human trial. Nanoparticles can act as antiviral drug delivery systems as they can interact and bind to a virus to prevent it from attaching and entering the host cell. They can also be designed to exhibit antiviral effects. The use of nanotechnology in the development of new medicines has been recognised as a key enabling technology, capable of providing new and innovative medical solutions to address future medical needs. 

 

These seven technologies represent just some of the exciting ways in which innovation is being used to tackle COVID-19. It seems inevitable that going forwards, technology will have an increasingly critical role to play in emergency responses. 

 

 

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