Science Technology and Innovation (STI) has been at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. From enhancing our understanding of virus transmission pathways and the complexity of pandemic risks to managing critical supplies and developing digital platforms for health, STI based solutions can transform short-term crisis management and long-term resilience-building through smart preparedness, economic restructuring, productive diversification, and the delivery of social protection. Here are four key messages we can draw from our experience in managing the pandemic:
Early action is key to minimizing the health and economic impact of pandemics
China, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore succeeded in early detection, rapid diagnostics, and implementing timely containment measures. Therefore, they were able to reduce the transmission of the virus quickly, thus minimizing the health impacts. Containment measures are costly and require difficult trade-offs between protecting health and the economy. However, some of the countries that acted early could minimize the need for long-term containment measures. As a result, they also succeeded in protecting their economy.
The key lesson emerging from these countries is to develop ‘epidemic early warning systems,’ with real-time surveillance of diseases, including projected potential exposure and vulnerability to determine at-risk communities. Such systems can capitalize on innovation in computational epidemiology, which uses big data, artificial intelligence, and algorithms to detect unusual patterns or clusters of illness. These patterns help forecast the disease trajectory and provide inputs for issuing warnings with reasonable lead-times of possible outbreaks.
Issuing these warnings requires highly granular or personal data for public health purposes, which raises security and privacy concerns. Fortunately, several emerging international frameworks address the issue of privacy in contact tracing during pandemics. These include Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative, and the joint Google–Apple Framework, which have shown substantial progress in record time. Combined, the innovations in computational epidemiology and international privacy provisions hold the key to a robust surveillance system, with effective early warning protocols that support a vigilant health emergency response. Ultimately, this will ensure better preparedness for any future pandemics.
The pandemic demonstrates the need to deliver social protection digitally
In the developing countries of Asia-Pacific, most people earn less than US$3 a day and are not covered by a formal social protection system sufficiently. The pandemic, therefore, demonstrates the necessity to prioritize the needs of poor and vulnerable groups. Digital solutions show great potential. For example, India’s pioneering biometric ID system, Aadhaar, was used to digitally transfer US$1.5bn into the bank accounts of 30 million people, including many migrant workers forced to return to their villages when the country entered a sudden lockdown. This example highlights the importance of setting up social protection before a crisis. As 1 billion accounts linked to people’s Aadhaar identity numbers, the government channeled targeted social protection to where it needed it most with remarkable efficiency. In many other countries, governments opt to digitize government-to-person (G2P) payments to limit personal contact and crowding when people collect their assistance and to rapidly disburse funds at an unprecedented scale. These initiatives are likely to close the gaps in social protection systems during the pandemic.
National innovation systems are our best friends in the crisis
Utilizing STI tools within the healthcare sector requires strengthened national capacities for innovation. A successful example is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the strong innovation capacity in the health and biotech sectors has supported an effective pandemic response. Many other countries in the region have strengthened innovation capacities through coordination among multiple sectors, disciplines, and government institutions. Thailand’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), including the National Research Council of Thailand and the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, is an excellent example. In Viet Nam, the close collaboration between the government, universities, and the private sector enabled the country to rapidly develop its own testing kits. These emerging national innovation ecosystems help countries mobilize domestic capacities to repurpose their products and services to address COVID-19-related supplies and critical medical equipment shortages.
The roots of resilience lie in managing systemic risks
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the systemic and cascading nature of risk. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a whole-of-government and an all-of-society approach. The critical challenge will be building back better with resilience at the core of recovery. ‘The ESCAP High-level Panel meeting on disaster and climate resilience in South Asia,’ held on 4 December 2020, presented pathways based on the scientific understanding of the disaster-pandemic and health nexus that harness STI based solutions for comprehensive preparedness systems for cascading disasters.
An innovation framework of diverse stakeholders, including regional and sub-regional organizations, must support these pathways. Ultimately, this aims to strengthen the capacity of all countries in the region to address systemic risks for a more resilient future.