There seems to be some light at the end of the dark tunnel of a serious biological threat that the world is passing through, since the nightmarish last seven months. The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to 213 countries and territories, and the number of new cases is continuously rising. According to reports, the severity of the situation has already re-shaped our society, more than ever before.
In tandem, reports are arriving from most countries, testifying the tremendous commitment of the governmental, scientific and clinical communities, to help local populations dealing with the pandemic. Scientists are still far from having a complete picture of the pathophysiology of this dangerous disease, including its long-term implications on individuals.
Amid this challenge, round the clock search for a life-saving and long-term pathway to outmatch the fast-spreading Covid-19, seems to be coming to fruition, soon. If everything materializes as expected, Covid-19 vaccines may be available by the end of this year or at the beginning of the next year. If it happens, this will be a record in the history of any vaccine development process, as the normal ‘mind to market’ period to deliver a scientifically proven, safe and effective vaccine is normally around 10 years. That said, there always exists a gap between the cup and the lip, as the saying goes.
No doubt, vaccines will be the best way to bring the new Coronavirus under a tight leash to help normalize life, restore livelihoods, and putting a nation’s economy back to the growth trajectory. The good news is, alongside this magic bullet, the power of technology is exploring other technological measures to keep the virus at bay, wherever possible. In this article, I shall focus on this interesting area.
Let me hasten to add, the value offerings of these devices can’t be compared with the long-term benefits that vaccines will offer in containing this global pandemic. Nevertheless, the questions still remain, when will a well-documented, safe, effective and affordable vaccine hit the market?
W.H.O expects to deliver 2 billion doses of vaccines by end 2021:
According to a News Release of July 15, 2020, by the World Trade Organization (W.H.O): ‘Seventy-five countries have submitted expressions of interest to protect their populations and those of other nations through joining the COVAX Facility, which aims to:
- Accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines.
- Guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
The goal of COVAX is to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO pre-qualification, by the end of 2021. Besides W.H.O, other experts are also cautiously optimistic about the availability of Coronavirus vaccines ‘soon’. Here also the question may crop up: how soon is ‘soon’?
How soon is ‘soon’ – for sooner availability of Covid-19 vaccines?
Experts have opined, a vaccine would normally take years, if not decades, to develop. However, in this unprecedented global health crisis, researchers hope to achieve the same amount of work in only a few months, following the ‘fast track’ regulatory pathway. Let me give a sense of the prevailing buzz around the availability of some of these vaccines.
Going by what the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Serum Institute of India said about Oxford-AstraZeneca developed vaccine, many expect their availability by the end of the current year in India. The Company CEO, reportedly, said on July 22, 2020: “By November, we hope to launch the vaccine if the trials are positive and if the Drug Controller of India blesses it and says it is safe and effective.”
Further, on July 28, 2020, Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. also launched two 30,000-subject trials of Covid-19 vaccines that could clear the way for regulatory approval and widespread use by the end of this year, as the companies announced. Notably, both vaccine candidates rely on a new technology that allows for faster development and manufacturing than traditional vaccine production methods, but does not have an extensive track record.
According to another report of July 30, 2020, Russia said, the world’s first COVID19 vaccine to be ready by August 12, 2020. The vaccine is being developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.
India’s indigenous experimental Coronavirus covid19 vaccine candidate, developed by Bharat Biotech, is also undergoing phase 1 and Phase 2 trials at 12 sites spanning across India. The initial results are positive. Earlier, ICMR had announced its launch on August 15, 2020. However, specialists in this area feel, ‘the August 15 timeline seems totally unrealistic, if not entirely impossible.’
Be that as it may, most experts still think a vaccine is likely to become widely available by mid-2021, about 12-18 months after the new virus, known officially as Sars-CoV-2, first emerged. Bringing to the market a Covid-19 vaccine, no doubt, will be considered as a ‘huge scientific feat,’ but ‘there are no guarantees it will work’ for all. It’s also a point to ponder that ‘Coronaviruses already circulate in human beings. They cause common cold symptoms and we don’t have vaccines for any of them’ just yet, as the report highlights.
It’s, therefore, a clear possibility that a well-documented, safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine may not be available, at least, in the next 6 months. Moreover, access to an affordable Coronavirus vaccine by the global population will also not happen in a jiffy. In that case, it is encouraging to note that other cutting-edge technological initiatives are also moving ahead with a great speed, to bring the rapid transmission of the new Coronavirus under a tight leash.
Novel, non-medical tech initiatives to contain the Covid-19 spread:
As potentially lethal Covid-19 is overwhelming the world, besides search for new drugs, faster diagnosis to fight the infection – and most effective preventive measure – vaccines, several non-medical tech initiatives are also underway. Many of these are quietly heading forward in search of user-friendly solutions, not just to ‘take the pressure off overworked health care workers’, but also ‘to stop the spread of the disease.’ These are all running parallel to offer technology driven disease treatment-options during this global health crisis.
An interesting paper from the European Parliamentary Research Sevice (EPRS), also vindicates some critical developments in this area. It focuses on technology-based solutions for various pressing pandemic-related problems. Let me illustrate this point with one example each, in the areas of ‘taking the pressure off overworked health care workers’, and in ‘stopping the spread of the disease.’
Technology to ‘take the pressure off overworked health care workers’:
Even in India, one hears quite a lot about the hardship of overworked health care workers. Various unconventional ways were also prescribed for the nation to encourage them. Some of these aren’t inexpensive, either. From this perspective, one such application is robotics technology. It can be effectively used as an intelligent solution to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission − especially in pandemic hotspots. As the above EPRS article highlighted, many countries are now deploying robots in other areas also to ‘take the pressure off overworked health care workers,’ such as:
- To disinfect whole hospitals,
- Decontaminate public and private sites,
- Handle biohazardous waste,
- Deliver food and medication to infected patients,
- Taking patients ‘ temperatures and act as medical assistants.
For example, an Israeli-made AI-powered robot assistant is, reportedly, being used in hundreds of hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes, and corporate buildings in Asia. This is to help minimize human-to-human contact as millions of people take precautions due to the novel Coronavirus outbreak worldwide. By the way, Israel is now a good friend of India, too.
Technology ‘to stop the spread of the disease’:
On June 01, 2020, Science Daily reported, the researchers at Penn State, the University of Minnesota and two Japanese universities, have found that a personal, handheld device emitting high-intensity ultraviolet light to disinfect areas by killing the novel Coronavirus, is now feasible.
Another report of July 10, 2020 also brought to the fore that the researchers from the University of Houston have created a new air filter that virus tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found can kill 99.8 percent of COVID-19 instantly. The filter could be useful for killing COVID-19 in public places, such as, in airports and airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships, besides other closed spaces such as schools, hospitals and health care facilities. Thus, the ability of this “catch and kill” air filter to control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society,” confirmed another report.
On July 29, 2020, an Indian business news daily wrote, ‘Bengaluru-based Organization De Scalene has received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the European Union to license and manufacture Scalene Hypercharge Corona Canon (Shycocan).’ The device disables the virus’ capability to infect, by flooding electrons in closed areas. It is claimed that Shycocan ‘has the ability to neutralize 99.9% of the Coronavirus that might be floating in the air in closed spaces.’
Although, it is not an alternative to medicines that can cure infected people or preventive vaccines, the device can be used to keep Covid-19 at bay, at least, till vaccines arrive. Thus, going by these developments, one gets a sense of various non-medical technological activities post Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. Especially about, how today’s technological whiz kids are working alongside the medical scientists to take the sting out of Covid-19 onslaught.
The Lancet article – ‘Applications of digital technology in COVID-19 pandemic planning and response,’ published on June 29, 2020, also made similar observations. It said: ‘With high transmissibility and no effective vaccine or therapy, COVID-19 is now a global pandemic.’ In this scenario, to contain the spread of a highly transmissible virus, countries that have quickly deployed digital technologies in various critical areas to contain the spread of the infection, may emerge as front-runners in managing disease burden, the paper concluded.
As of August 02, 2020 morning, the recorded Coronavirus cases in India reached a staggering 1,751,919 with 37,403 deaths. Recent Sero-surveys also show COVID-19 peaks in the country is still far away. It is very likely that a vast majority of the population will survive the Covid-19 catastrophe, even if only the existing systems are followed. But, just surviving is neither the reason nor the purpose of life. What most people want today is finding out a comprehensive way for – ‘jaan bhi and jahan bhi’ (life also, the world also).
Understandably, on July 31, 2020, W.H.O has also reiterated: “The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come.” Under this backdrop, unleashing the potential of new non-medical digital tools, as illustrated above, seem to be of immense benefit – not just to protect many more people from the infection, but also to neutralize Covid-19 effectively, especially in India.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.