COVID-19 is arguably the single most impactful crisis event in modern times. Bioinformatics is taking the lead in conquering the virus as institutions and organizations like CIHR increases funding for 49 additional COVID-19 research projects, and the Innovative Genomics Institute “pivots from genome editing research to an all-out effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Healthcare and medical research is undergoing profound and exceedingly fast change in an all-out global effort to curb the pandemic.
“The virus is crowding new technology paradigms into healthcare everywhere. Networks of epidemiologists are tracking the coronavirus using low-cost gene-sequencing technologies which are also driving some of the most promising vaccine candidates,” said Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of Thunderbird School of Global Management, in his article in The Economist Intelligence Unit.
The inevitable medical breakthroughs can’t be discovered fast enough, even though our discovery rate is far faster than anything we could accomplish earlier.
Vaccine development “is a long, complex process, often lasting 10-15 years,” according to The History of Vaccines. Granted a good block of that time is due to meeting the safety requirements mandated by law, but the traditional discovery process involved in actually developing the vaccine is still long.
Today there are over 30 vaccine possibilities being explored simultaneously, according to the COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker. Even so, “experts estimate it could take between 12-18 months” before we’ll have a vaccine that can effectively and safely curb this pandemic.
But time is not on our side.
As of last month, more people were under protective lockdown to avoid the novel coronavirus than were alive during World War II, according to a report in ScienceAlert. An estimated 2.6 billion – one-third of the total human population – were under some form of lockdown, according to Agence France-Presse. The death toll continues to rise even before the widely predicted second wave hits.
Beyond the quest to find a cure or vaccine through bioinformatics, efforts to avoid the disease are affecting how we communicate with each other and our environment. In turn, avoidance through isolation and social distancing is accelerating the advance of the 4th Industrial Revolution as the quest for survival intensifies.
In a burst of energy and urgent need, the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds are fading. The technologies that herald the 4th Industrial Revolution include bioinformatics, biohacking, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). All of which “involves a systemic change across many sectors and aspects of human life: the crosscutting impacts of emerging technologies are even more important than the exciting capabilities they represent,” according to an article in Britannica.
For example, during this pandemic, people can visit a doctor virtually via a smartphone app, and get their prescribed prescriptions delivered to their homes via that app or another one. And they are doing so in record numbers as every earlier objection to telemedicine adoption becomes instantly moot.
People also 3D printed parts for life-saving ventilators; streamed videos to learn how via one of several Internet of Things (IoT) devices; discovered which hospitals needed parts through social media; collaborated on printing material sources over teleconferencing apps; and, scheduled the shipping of the parts to the correct hospital using a smartphone app.
But that’s not all that can be accomplished right now. For example, doctors can 3D print a patient’s exact organ condition to plan an upcoming surgery. They can also 3D print organs for transplant, which may one day become part of the long-term treatment for COVID-19 survivors who suffer permanent organ damage from the disease.
Eventually we will develop a vaccine and the threat of COVID-19 will recede into a faint memory. But its affect on how we use technology is permanently etched into our psyches. The 4th Industrial Revolution has arrived.