Science, technology and innovation in the pandemic age

In the midst of the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, science, technology and innovation played substantial and impactful roles by responding to the crisis with a suite of solutions, targeting various challenges and expediting the global recovery. Consequently, the pandemic has spurred a serious discussion about how to upgrade the ecosystems of these three critical levers and focus on building resilient futures for our economies and societies.

At the onset 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 illnesses. The scientific community benefited from existing research and technology in the fields of infectious diseases and vaccines, such as the messenger RNA technology used by the pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna in their vaccines.

Thanks to the collective and collaborative efforts of many governments, private sector actors and philanthropists, billions of dollars were channeled toward discovering, manufacturing and distributing medical solutions. For instance, the US National Institutes of Health received and invested $4.9 billion in critical research on diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.

On the other hand, the European Commission has, for many years, been investing heavily in scientific research and innovation to address global health challenges and preparedness for pandemics. Between 2007 and 2019, it put €4.1 billion ($4.4 billion) toward research on infectious diseases. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission pledged an additional €1 billion for coronavirus research to focus on important areas such as diagnostics, treatments, vaccines and preparedness for outbreaks.

The adoption of technological solutions associated with social distancing measures mitigated the transmission rate of the virus and reduced economic and social costs. An abundance of successful endeavors were put in place during the first few months of the pandemic. For instance, many public services were shifted to digital spheres, enabling people to process and avail their services online. Retailers that were forced to close physical locations during lockdowns were able to stay afloat by moving to e-commerce. Schools and universities shifted their entire educational setting online and continued offering classes, resources, digital libraries and online support for parents. Enterprises capitalized on online collaboration tools to give more flexible working arrangements for employees, especially those who were located in remote areas or had care duties.

The adoption of technological innovations revolving around remote work has also inspired another set of online collaboration opportunities between various communities worldwide. Many scientific conferences and research collaboration projects are capitalizing on online tools to propel scientific advancement, discovery and discussion between various actors.

The proliferation of open science and open data initiatives during the pandemic has spurred the creation of virtual platforms that disseminate research from various sources across the globe, acting as a sort of catalyst for further scientific collaboration and innovation based on updated learnings in different fields. The World Health Organization’s COVID-19 database is a prime example of the power of virtual scientific collaboration, whereby global scientific findings and knowledge on the virus is published daily.

Meanwhile, more and more renowned universities and training institutions are now offering online training programs and short courses to aspiring learners via digital platforms. And telehealth platforms have enabled medical workers to connect with their patients online, regardless of geography. Within dining settings, 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 continue engagement with their audiences during lockdowns and travel restrictions.

The adoption of technological solutions mitigated the transmission rate of the virus and reduced economic and social costs.

Sara Al-Mulla

Furthermore, governments have recognized the importance of sharing with the public timely scientific information related to the pandemic. Such public health messages created awareness of the nature of the virus and how to mitigate 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 instill public trust in the authorities by sharing regular information on the virus.

At the heart of the management of the COVID-19 pandemic were the various scientific advisory groups that were present in central government agencies, which had the aim of providing evidence-based solutions. For instance, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is charged with supporting government decision-makers during emergencies with an abundance of scientific and technical advice. Its insightful research papers focused on situational analyses, mid-term projections, social and behavioral interventions, and variants of concern.

Going forward, we can stretch our imaginations far and wide thanks to the boundless opportunities that are inherent in our world’s mobilization of science, technology and innovation.

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