By Alison McCook
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David Bray, PhD

Something was happening.

Nearly 20 years ago, David Bray, PhD, was working as the information technology chief for the CDC’s Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program, when he noticed a strange anomaly: In China, the price of garlic had risen nearly 10-fold. Since garlic is considered medicinal by many people in China, Dr. Bray and his team knew something had to be amiss. Working with people on the ground, they learned the country was experiencing a wave of an atypical febrile illness. Months later, China revealed it had been struck by a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1, also known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). “We knew about it five and a half months before the Chinese government said anything,” Dr. Bray said.

Today, as the world reels from the effects of another novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), Dr. Bray has been tracking innovations that rely on more than just garlic prices to quickly spot outbreaks, such as low-cost tools that analyze viral levels in wastewater. Other exciting developments that could help protect from and prevent future pandemics include medical devices that use artificial intelligence to guide treatment decisions and “smart” personal protective equipment (PPE). The possibilities are endless, said Dr. Bray, now the director of the Atlantic Council GeoTech Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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The pandemic is forcing innovators to work hard – and quickly, Dr. Bray said. Most of the new ideas he encounters are one to three years away, “if not already here,” he told OR Management News. “Things will change. We won’t go back to ‘normal.’”

New Ideas for a New World

To get a sense of what’s happening, the Atlantic Council recently surveyed more than 100 technology experts regarding their predictions of the effect of COVID-19 on innovation. Not surprisingly, respondents agreed that the pandemic will significantly accelerate innovation in data and AI, as well as the medical and bioengineering fields (Figure).

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Figure. Technology experts’ predictions on how COVID-19 will affect tech and innovation efforts.

Examples already abound. Recently, M-Sparc, a science park in Wales, held a “Hack COVID-19” event, in which it challenged innovators to find new ways to help patients; one winner developed a microphone that lets surgeons and other health care workers hear better when wearing FFP3 masks. Another creation was a hands-free door opener for hospital settings, which the designer has made free to anyone with a 3D printer.

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And when it comes to PPE, the future is smart—smart garments specifically, which transmit information about the environment or the clothing itself. Such clothing may adjust the temperature in response to outward conditions, emit light in the dark, or even alert wearers of environmental dangers. Further, smart shoes could alert workers when someone is approaching, so they can don a mask.

Other innovators are focusing on improving the materials themselves, such as Canadian company Texavie, which is developing PPE with interwoven antiviral and antibacterial biocides for superior protection. Protection works best when it has a personalized fit, said Dr. Bray, so future garments may scan or use photos to produce something on demand that’s tailored to the specific wearer.

Some COVID-19–inspired innovations involve tweaks to existing tools to fit the needs of a new world. For instance, the “smart mirror” Miaza Mirror—meant to display email and news—now plays an animated video about proper handwashing. Makers of the Ava bracelet are claiming it can both track ovulation and alert users to the early signs of COVID-19 via changes in breathing rate, pulse rate and skin temperature. Drones are being used to broadcast public health messages about social distancing, as well as monitor fevers and spray streets with sanitizers.

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One company that Atlantic has partnered with, Valence Medical, is tackling supply chain logjams, such as when pandemic-hit nations scramble for PPE and other supplies. The technology would create a virtual middleman that links reliable suppliers to reliable buyers, sorts out fair pricing, and facilitates the monetary transaction. Another Atlantic partner is applying computer vision to the manufacturing process, to ensure that items produced from different manufacturers have similar quality. The technology was originally expected in 10 to 15 years, but the pandemic has significantly accelerated the time line, Dr. Bray noted.

AI to the Rescue

There is no end to what computer learning can do to help during a pandemic: AI can sift through the mass of research pouring in about COVID-19 and identify promising areas to pursue, accelerate the discovery of therapies that block the virus, identify early warning signs of new outbreaks, and provide insight about when it’s safe to return to work and school. Other benefits include identifying new risk factors for severe disease, such as genetic markers or blood types, which can guide resource distribution, said Stewart Scott, a program assistant with Atlantic.

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One such device that uses AI to monitor patients—including, most recently, those diagnosed with COVID-19—is Emerald, a wireless system developed by a team led by Dina Katabi, PhD, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. The device passively monitors patients’ vital signs, activity, sleep quality/stages and respiration, and then transmits that information to their health care providers. It does so by analyzing the wireless signals in the room without any physical contact with the patient’s body. Since it’s already been tested in a variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (Digit Biomark 2019;3:22-30), “when COVID-19 became the problem, the Emerald was just a natural fit,” Dr. Katabi told OR Management News.

The company Dr. Katabi co-founded is now collaborating with Mayo Clinic, McLean Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “By having these records of the evolution of symptoms of different patients, one could develop machine learning models to predict the risk that a particular patient may experience a difficult recovery journey,” she said. “Retrospective analysis of this data along with patients’ medical history could be useful in guiding hospital admission and discharge decisions.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and right now, COVID-19 has created the need for tools to treat the current pandemic and mitigate the effects of future outbreaks, Dr. Bray said. The situation reminds him of how the risk from house fires prompted innovators to design a system to warn occupants before it was too late. “Can we instrument the planet in such a way that we’ll have earlier warning signs about new viruses and infections, analogous to smoke detectors?”


Disclosures: Dr. Katabi co-founded the company behind the Emerald device. The Atlantic Council GeoTech Center is partnered with two companies in the medical industry; one is Nanotronics and another is SICPA, a Swiss company involved with the economy of trust in medical supply chains.