Bindu Vijayan

The current pandemic has exposed yawning gaps in the systems of the best of developed countries to be able to respond to virulent pathogens.  The world has seen SARS and Ebola in fairly recent times, and with the COVID 19 pandemic, it is becoming clear that technology can help combat and overcome future epidemics if we plan and strategize with these technologies.  They bring efficiency to our response times, and we are currently learning the importance of using these technologies for prevention as well.  A small example – Canadian AI health monitoring platform BlueDot’s outbreak risk software is said to have predicted the outbreak of the pandemic a whole week before America (who announced on Jan 8), and the WHO (on Jan 9) did. BlueDot predicted the spread of COVID 19 from Wuhan to other countries like Bangkok and Seoul by parsing through huge volumes of international news (in local languages).  It further was able to predict where the infection would spread by accessing global airline data to trace and track where the infected people were headed.

Contrary to earlier times, today it only takes a few hours to sequence a virus, thanks of course, to technology.  The scientists don’t have to cultivate a sufficient batch of viruses any longer in order to examine them, today, its DNA can be got from an infected person’s blood sample or saliva.  India’s National Institute of Animal Biotechnology (NIAB), Hyderabad, has developed a biosensor that can detect the novel coronavirus in saliva samples. The new portable device called ‘eCovSens’, can detect coronavirus antigens in human saliva within 30 seconds using just 20 microlitres of sample.  Startups like Canadian GenMarkDx, US-based Aperiomics & XCR Diagnostics, Singapore based MiRXES, and Polish company’s SensDx have introduced top notch diagnostic solutions.  Identifying infected people to provide strict medical care will be made a lot faster with these diagnostic kits. 

Genome sequencing is also vital to fight the pandemic.  The genome of this virus was completely sequenced by the Chinese scientists in under a month from detection of the first case, and then on the biotech companies created synthetic copies of the virus for research.  Today creating a synthetic copy of a single nucleotide costs under 10 cents (in comparison to the earlier $ 10), so these days it is far quicker and cheaper, which means the chances of finding appropriate / adequate medication are much faster which will help save more lives.

Healthcare workers are having to pay a huge price, they run the risk of getting infected, there is often paucity of PPE, and in some countries, they even have to face assault from crowds that are angry and confused at the situation.  Medical workers are targetted by mobs, there are instances where communities don’t allow them to come back to their homes after duty, shops don’t sell them necessities, etc.  Medical robots can be the real game-changers in such situations.  Deploying robots in such scenarios to do the rescue is becoming a much sought after option, wherever possible.   Robots become the answer to such difficult situations as they are impervious to infections.  They allow physicians to treat/communicate through a screen. The patient’s vitals are also recorded by the robot.  Patients can be very efficiently monitored this way.

Drones for deliveries, especially medical deliveries can also be used to reach isolation zones or quarantined zones.  Italy made a big success out of this. Italy’s coronavirus epicenter, Bergamo, in Lombardy region, had to resort to people’s temperature being read by drones.  ‘The Star’ reported that “once a person’s temperature is read by the drone, you must still stop that person and measure their temperature with a normal thermometer,” said Matteo Copia, a police commander in Treviolo, near Bergamo. Drones are being used for surveillance – In areas where people were not complying with social distancing and lockdown restrictions, authorities are using drones to monitor people’s movement and break up social gatherings that could be a potential risk to the society. Drones are also being used for Disinfectant spraying, broadcasting messages, medicine and grocery deliveries and so on.

Interactive maps give us the data on the pandemic on real time, and monitoring a pandemic this wide and dangerous is very crucial to stopping/controlling its spread. These maps are made available to everybody, and the truth and transparency in the situation of such epic proportion is necessary in order to avoid panic within communities.  We now have apps for tracking the virus spread, fatalities and recovery rates, and apps would be developed for the future that will warn us about impending outbreaks, the geographies and flight routes that we must avoid

Implementing these technologies will enable us to manage and conquer situations like the current pandemic we are going through. As Bernardo Mariano Junior, Director of WHO’s Department of Digital Health and Innovation, rightly said “The world needs to be well prepared and united in the spirit of shared responsibility, to digitally detect, protect, respond, and prepare the recovery for COVID 19. No single entity or single country initiative will be sufficient. We need everyone.”