Economy

Scientific innovation in 2021: Lessons from COVID-19

One of the bigger learnings of 2020 was that it takes time, planning, trust and bringing together of resources as well as knowledge to manage a pandemic 

 
By Mark Kessel
Published: Tuesday 09 February 2021
Year 2021 began with COVID-19 pandemic still ravaging populations, but with vaccines there is hope that it can be brought under control. Photo: Pixabay

The year 2020 was unquestionably momentous and tragic. Climate crisis, natural disasters, political upheavals and human rights abuses confronted humanity with unprecedented challenges — but nothing impacted the world like the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic did.

We began 2021 with the pandemic still ravaging populations around the globe. In the middle of the catastrophe, with the importance of testing finally acknowledged and vaccines becoming available in many countries, there is hope that the disease may be brought under control. The past year has provided important learnings that we must take into the year ahead.

Collective determination has produced an unprecedented pace of scientific innovation. Antigen rapid tests were ready for deployment within eight months of the pandemic — and vaccines in less than a year. Improved, life-saving treatments for COVID-19 were developed.

And the progress continues. There are currently more than 1,000 tests for COVID-19 already commercially available or in development. The quest to make testing simpler, faster and affordable is undying.

But funding is still urgently needed to make them more accessible so that widespread on-the-spot testing can be carried out to keep people safe in schools, care homes and workplaces.

Global cooperation in 2020, while not perfect, has stood out. The formation of Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator is one such example.It is a groundbreaking partnership of many of the world’s international health organisations and leading scientists and institutions that have rallied around defeating the pandemic, by joining forces to share, build and invent global solutions to ensure equitable access to tests, treatments and vaccines.

The potential threat of a global pandemic was well-known among many organisations in global health. Despite the World Health Organization and others laying the groundwork for global pandemic response, sustained lack of political prioritisation and funding has exposed critical health systems weaknesses in many countries, including high-income nations.

This lack of preparedness has also been highlighted by other areas of health that have seen severe setbacks after decades of hard-won steady progress — such as Human immunodeficiency virus, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as other neglected diseases, for reasons including the sudden redirection of resources towards COVID-19 measures.

We have learned that it takes time, planning, building of trust and bringing together of resources and rapidly acquired new scientific knowledge to manage a pandemic.

Health organisations would continue to work with determination, partnership and preparedness this year as they learn to deal with the emergence of new variants of COVID-19, as well as with the ‘long tail’ of the disease that is responsible for millions of patients still suffering symptoms.

The prospect of vaccines reaching millions or even billions of people remains a beacon of hope, if resistance to vaccinations and logistical impediments hampering the rapid rollout of vaccines even in high-income countries, such as the United States and France, can be ameliorated.

Three vaccines have been widely approved for use so far —Astra Zeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer / BioNTech. A single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson will be within weeks, having announced on January 29 57-72 per cent efficacy in clinical trials (varying by country).

Overall, more than 108 million vaccine doses have been administered in at least 67 countries. India has already inoculated more than two million people, including nearly half its frontline healthcare workers. Serum Institute of India in Pune, Maharashtra, is also a leading manufacturer of vaccines for worldwide distribution, including Astra Zeneca’s.

While vaccines are justifiably creating excitement, they are not, on their own, a ‘magic bullet’: Tests, treatments and vaccines are interconnected. Testing is indispensable for the rollout and ongoing development of vaccines; sequencing technology is the means by which we can identify new strains so we can evaluate performance of our current tools to fight them.

Strategic testing approaches will continue to be vital early warning systems for hotspots and new potential outbreaks that need immediate containment.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) must be equipped to manage the pandemic as effectively as high-income countries. The ACT Accelerator targets for 2021 include distributing two billion vaccines, providing 245 million treatments, establishing testing for 500 million people in LMICs and strengthening the health systems needed to support them.

Global health security measures, which require coordination and cooperation, will ensure health systems everywhere are able not only to defeat COVID-19, but to detect, manage and contain future outbreak diseases so global pandemics can be consigned to the history books.

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