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Innovation takes a leading role in tackling COVID-19

Innovation in various technology fields is experiencing a phenomenal upswing. Artificial intelligence (AI) capable of scanning thousands of existing drugs, open-source 3D printed ventilators, advanced robotics tracking the spread of COVID-19, drones cleaning public areas, and robust blockchain-powered supply chains. These are just some of the technological breakthroughs underway in 2020 aiding the fight against the pandemic. The tragic loss of life has spurred governments and private businesses to venture forth and innovate in a bid to tackle the spread of coronavirus. Developments that were previously in the testing phase have been rapidly pushed through proof of concept in the face of the current situation. 

AI is accelerating drug testing

AI has proved its value in the healthcare and medical sector prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Companies have demonstrated that machine learning can potentially accelerate the development of drugs, with organisations such as Oxford-based biotech company Exscientia looking to make the process five-times faster. Traditionally, drug development takes up to a decade with a failure rate of 90 per cent and a potential price tag of $2 billion. Now, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated everything.

UK-based BenevolentAI is turning its attention to existing drugs that can be repurposed to treat novel coronavirus. Using machine learning to assist drug discovery, it has taken the team just three days to identify six drugs that can potentially disrupt the virus’s processes. Peter Richardson, Vice President of Pharmacology at BenevolentAI explains: “It validated using AI for this kind of problem. It would have been impossible for us [humans] to do it at that speed. If you took 250 people you still couldn’t do it at that pace because there would be too many competing ideas. You really can’t do it without an organised knowledge graph and the ability to query it.”

3D printing to tackle medical supply chain disruption

Supply chains have been hard hit in Q1 2020 and the global shockwaves of this have already spurred innovation in the sector. Of immediate need is medical equipment in desperately short supply, and 3D printing has already shown that it can accelerate manufacturing processes and strip down transport requirements with on-site printing from approved specification files. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and Veterans Affairs Department has produced a dozen 3D-printed personal protective equipment designs approved for clinical use in April. Now they are turning their attention to designing ventilator components. Last month in hard-hit Spain, the first 3D printed respirator was developed and medically approved for use.

IoT deploys in Asia to track and mitigate spread of COVID-19

Drones, robots, mapping, and tracking methods have been deployed in various Asian countries in an effort to limit the spread of the virus and mitigate its impact. Open data has enabled the Singaporean government to map the outbreak in detail. In China, robots are being used to clean and disinfect hospitals while drones are delivering medical supplies. Further, machine learning-enabled scanners are being used to sift through thousands of images to identify the infection. In South Korea, authorities are using mobile phones and satellites to track and trace potential carriers.

Partner at the global law firm DLA Piper Carolyn Bigg explains that “it’s not surprising that these countries have pressed new technologies into use quickly. Countries such as Singapore and China want to be leaders in big data and analytics. They are showing how big data platforms can be mobilised quickly and transparently, and be a force for good. It will lead to greater awareness of how big data can be used.” 

Speaking to Thomson Reuters Foundation, Jonathan Tanner, digital consultant at the Overseas Development Institute think tank pointed out that “sometimes the pace of innovation in emerging digital technologies can be held back by infrastructure, financing and bureaucratic constraints. When faced with a challenge like responding to the coronavirus outbreak, there are strong incentives to overcome these constraints quickly and put new technology to the test.”

Blockchain applications and innovation to predict and verify supply chains

Looking beyond the current pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) stated in early April that blockchain and digitisation can help supply chains survive crises such as COVID-19. The pandemic has forced organisations worldwide to come to terms with the fragility of their supply chains, most notably the issue that many end-chain companies only trace their parts’ immediate history. WEF Head of Digital Trade, Ziyang Fan, and blockchain enterprise company Skuchain’s Executive Vice President, Rebecca Liao, expressed “the need to obtain more visibility across the chain”, adding that end-chain companies “usually have little to no knowledge of suppliers further up the chain”.

In March, US Customs officials intercepted counterfeit COVID-19 testing kits at Los Angeles airport, highlighting the issue of fake goods and stressing the need for verification. This is a situation where blockchain applications offer up another potential win. Creating a digital chain of permanent blocks visible to all participants showing the interactions at various stages of a product’s journey, from development to consumer sustains trust and traceability along supply chains. In April, BMW and Tesla joined the ranks of the multinational titans already adopting blockchain-based processes to enhance their procurement and tracking systems. BMW’s blockchain platform PartChain will be used in their logistics operations, and Tesla is trailing a blockchain pilot project to deliver improved sea waybill information.

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Long-term impact on innovation

COVID-19 has shown many of us what is immediately important with projects showing positive potential propelled forwards at unprecedented rates. The longer-lasting results of the pandemic are yet to be seen, but it remains probable that new technologies will continue to make supply chains robust and resilient. Furthermore, technologies used in collaboration—including AI, IoT, blockchain and cloud computing—are showing their worth to continue enhancing processes globally and across sectors.