Leveraging health technology for post-covid-19 survival

May 4, 2020
Sophia Ononye-Onyia.

It is evident that we underestimated the so-called invisible enemy, which has left most of us feeling vulnerable, helpless, and defenseless as we still remain trapped and nostalgic for what we had before covid-19. Additionally, although the US has the largest defense budget in the world, it is quite ironic that we have the highest number of coronavirus cases. This may be because of a tendency for developed countries to see themselves as invincible, especially when it comes to infectious diseases. But it may also suggest that we prioritize “convenience-based” technologies such as self-driving cars and private space missions almost at the expense of forward-thinking health technology tools such as telehealth and artificial organs.

Furthermore, recent reports by well-respected health-care organizations such as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate multiple waves of attack by the coronavirus and suggest that previous infections may not provide sufficient immunity against future cases. So where does that leave us? It seems that the answer may lie in and intra-industry and inter-industry partnerships, particularly between the technology sector, health-care institutions and the pharmaceutical industry.

The importance of digital health technology tools in surviving covid-19 is probably best showcased by the recent announcement between Apple and Google on a “joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.” Apple also recently released a new covid-19 app and website based on guidance from the CDC, which is fairly reassuring for the approximate 100 million Americans who own iPhones. These recent partnerships of course begs the question of why it took a disease of such monumental scale to accelerate collaboration within and between industries. But the answer is also quite simple: we underestimated the spread and impact of covid-19.

A 2019 Gallup poll indicated that the pharmaceutical industry is the most hated in America probably because of high drug costs, lobbying concerns, and the opioid crisis. But the importance of life sciences at a time like this cannot be overstated. Many biopharmaceutical companies are looking for new ways to accelerate drug discovery, which is arguably the most inefficient stage in the drug development process and typically takes about five years. For example, Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies recently announced they will leverage their existing partnership for mapping population-wide adaptive immune responses to diseases at scale to study covid-19. This partnership is important because it will help to lead an effort to better understand how the human immune system responds to the virus.

3D bioprinting is also being explored as a “clinical trial in a dish” by biotechnology companies such as San Diego-based Viscient Biosciences who is using 3D-bioprinted and other 3D-tissue models made with lung cells to “support viral infectivity research and search for an effective therapy against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus which causes covid-19.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also being leveraged to improve the discovery of new therapies for infectious diseases by identifying patterns in big data and generating illuminating algorithms. In late 2019, Novartis, a big pharmaceutical company (“big pharma”), and Microsoft announced their plans to “bring the power of AI to the desktop of every Novartis associate” and “to tackle some of the hardest computational challenges within life sciences.” In many ways, both companies were ahead of the curve in realizing the importance of user familiarity and maximizing the use and adoption of emerging technologies, for the greater public good.

Nongovernmental organizations and regulatory bodies must also be applauded for their efforts to foster collaborations aimed at disease contentment and management. Notably, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced a new guidance to provide a policy that would expand the availability of digital health therapeutic devices for psychiatric disorders while also reducing user and health-care provider contact and potential exposure to covid-19 during this pandemic. The FDA has also provided new guidance that has paved the way for virtual clinical trials that will maximize the use of patient-facing technologies, such as smartphone apps or wearable sensors to engage and monitor patients during clinical studies.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mastercard, and the UK-based Wellcome Foundation announced the creation of an accelerator to speed up and increase access to covid-19 treatments. This covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator will also involve several big pharma companies but once again, the surge of such important private-public partnerships exemplifies the impact of underprioritization of public health and the importance of proactivity in health-care management and delivery.

In closing, covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the global economy, our sense of security, physical health, and mental well-being. Despite valiant efforts to repurpose existing therapies or to develop new anti-infectives in the fight against covid-19, there is a heightened sense of uncertainty around our ability to survive the pandemic and when the “new normal” will revert to the “normal normal.” Yet, even in moments of bleakness, it is important to highlight positive developments. Notably, the number of emerging collaborations such as cross-platform contact tracing for covid-19 demonstrate our global commitment to fight against a common enemy that may reappear again in multiple waves based on expert predictions. Taken together, our post covid-19 survival hinges on continued collaboration within and between industries, especially the technology, health-care, and pharmaceutical sectors.

Sophia Ononye-Onyia is a Yale-trained molecular oncologist and founder and CEO of The Sophia Consulting Firm, a Brooklyn-based life-sciences marketing and communications consultancy.