Science, technology and innovation in the pandemic era
Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, science, technology and innovation played a substantial and impactful role in responding to the crisis with a range of solutions, addressing various challenges and accelerating the global recovery. Consequently, the pandemic has sparked serious discussion about how to improve the ecosystems of these three critical levers and focus on building a resilient future for our economies and societies.
At the outbreak of the pandemic, there was an urgent need to develop effective diagnostics, therapeutic interventions and vaccines against the virus. In less than a year, scientists were able to develop effective vaccines, compared to the usual decade-long efforts to develop vaccines for other diseases. The scientific community has benefited from existing research and technology in infectious diseases and vaccines, such as messenger RNA technology used by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna in their vaccines.
Thanks to the collective and concerted efforts of many governments, private sector actors and philanthropists, billions of dollars have been funneled into the discovery, manufacture and distribution of medical solutions. For example, the US National Institutes of Health received and invested $4.9 billion in critical research into diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.
On the other hand, for many years now, the European Commission has invested heavily in scientific research and innovation to tackle global health problems and prepare for pandemics. Between 2007 and 2019, it invested $4.1 billion ($4.4 billion) in infectious disease research. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee has pledged an additional €1 billion for coronavirus research, focusing on key areas such as diagnostics, treatments, vaccines and outbreak preparedness.
The adoption of technological solutions related to social distancing measures reduced the transmission rate of the virus and lowered its economic and social costs. A plethora of successful efforts were made during the first few months of the pandemic. For example, many public services have shifted to digital realms, allowing people to process and use their services online. Retailers who had to close physical locations during lockdowns were able to keep their heads above water by switching to e-commerce. Schools and universities have shifted their entire educational environment online and continued to offer classes, resources, digital libraries and online support for parents. Companies took advantage of online collaboration tools to provide more flexible work arrangements for employees, especially those who were in remote areas or had care responsibilities.
The adoption of technological innovations around remote working has also led to a new set of online collaboration opportunities between different communities around the world. Many scientific conferences and research collaboration projects take advantage of online tools to stimulate scientific progress, discovery and discussion among different actors.
The proliferation of open science and open data initiatives during the pandemic has led to the creation of virtual platforms that disseminate research from various sources around the world, acting as a kind of catalyst for further scientific collaboration and innovation based on updated lessons on different areas. The World Health Organization’s COVID-19 database is a prime example of the power of virtual science collaboration, with global scientific findings and knowledge about the virus being published daily.
Meanwhile, more and more renowned universities and training institutes offer online training programs and short courses to aspiring students via digital platforms. And telehealth platforms have enabled healthcare providers to connect with their patients online, regardless of geographic location. Within dining environments, QR codes allow people to check menu options on their phones, reducing the need for physically printed menus. In the culture sector, museums, art galleries and opera houses uploaded their creative content online to maintain engagement with their audiences during lockdowns and travel restrictions.
The application of technological solutions reduced the transmission rate of the virus and lowered its economic and social costs.
In addition, governments have recognized the importance of sharing scientific information related to the pandemic with the public in a timely manner. Such public health messages created awareness of the nature of the virus and how to limit its transmission. In an earlier example, on the brink of the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in South Korea, the government was able to build public trust in the authorities by regularly sharing information about the virus.
At the heart of managing the COVID-19 pandemic was the various scientific advisory groups present in central government agencies, whose aim was to provide evidence-based solutions. For example, the UK Emergency Scientific Advisory Group is tasked with supporting government decision-makers during emergencies with a wealth of scientific and technical advice. The insightful research papers focused on situational analyses, medium-term projections, social and behavioral interventions, and variants of care.
In the future, we can stretch our imaginations far and wide thanks to the limitless possibilities inherent in our world’s mobilization of science, technology and innovation.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policies and children’s literature. You can contact her at www.amorelicious.com.
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