The Year of the Swan

The Year of the Swan

The surge of crisis innovation has only just begun, and Black Swan innovations would unleash remarkable discoveries in all spheres

From digital transformation, mRNA (messenger RNAs) to drone delivered medicines, the black swan event of the pandemic has unleashed unprecedented forces of innovation across industries from MedTech to EdTech. Some of these innovations are a huge scientific leap forward that will deliver remarkable benefits to humanity for years to come.

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Such crises have always been a force for innovation because they create a sense of urgency amongst us, bring in purpose of action, and break down silos to forge collaboration across disciplines, technologies, teams, and borders. This urgency helps everyone to focus on the task in hand and channelize resources into solving the burning challenge.

The development of the COVID-19 vaccines in record time of one year itself is a remarkable example of global collaboration. The scientists of Wuhan, China, who were the first to face the onslaught of the virus, shared its genome structure with the rest of the world. Using this valuable information, pharma giants of the western world developed the vaccines, and Indian companies collaborated with them to manufacture millions of doses to meet global requirements.

This was the culmination of years of research going on in this field and huge investments being made by pharma companies in using data science to crunch massive volumes of data to extract actionable intelligence. Teams with expertise in vaccine production shifted their focus almost exclusively to producing a COVID-19 vaccine at scale. Similarly, gene-sequencing labs that had been using their sophisticated equipment for research projects reallocated all of their skills, equipment, and lab resources to COVID-19 testing.

The Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England – both of which normally use cutting-edge DNA sequencing approaches for research and clinical trials for a wide range of diseases – took less than two weeks to turn all of their lab testing resources to the DNA sequencing of COVID-19 samples for patient testing. A new AI COVID-19 screening test, named CURIAL AI, which uses routinely collected clinical data for patients presenting to hospital proved to accurately diagnose disease in a wide range of populations.

Scientists are now experimenting with COVID-19 vaccine technology as a way to treat terminal illnesses like cancer and HIV. That’s because the coronavirus pandemic pushed scientists to create a first-of-its-kind vaccine using mRNA, or a small piece of a coronavirus particle’s spike protein, to create an immune system response that protects from infection. It’s an approach vaccine researcher have been studying for the past 25 years.

Traditional vaccines are made up of small or inactivated doses of the whole disease-causing organism, or the proteins that it produces, which are introduced into the body to provoke the immune system into mounting a response. mRNA vaccines, in contrast, trick the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself.

mRNA-based vaccine hit the headlines in 2020 after the quick development of two candidates to protect against SARS-CoV-2. This sudden breakthrough was built on the back of more than a decade of research into mRNA vaccines, both for infectious diseases and oncology. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s jabs were the first mRNA-based vaccines to receive even emergency authorisation from key regulators, and real-world data from the global COVID-19 rollout would play an important role in validating their long-term efficacy and safety profiles against the coronavirus and other viral agents.

The potential shift to telemedicine has been a somewhat contentious, decision for almost a decade. Some health care organizations implemented telemedicine half-heartedly while others didn’t, and leadership teams argued about whether it should be a priority. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, telemedicine became an imperative that was no longer debated.

In a contactless world of remote everything in China, robots were designed to deliver medicines, meals, and to collect bed sheets and rubbish in hospitals. The e-commerce giant JD developed a drone program to drop parcels and to spray disinfectant. Smart helmets were made identify anyone with fever within a five-meter radius.

Created by a San Francisco start-up, Imeve, the AVATOUR remote presence platform, offered AR/VR collaboration tools by allowing multiple users to visit a real remote location in real time, providing a new and effective substitute for business travel. Shenzhen-based camera maker Insta360 builds the 360-degree cameras that make AVATOUR possible. Partners are able to walk through an entire factory to review progress, just as if they are there.

For other businesses, especially those where digital and automation technologies are not commonly used, the crisis led to drastic changes in their interactions with consumers. In education, teachers from elementary schools to universities transformed content and delivered it online or through phones. Retailers started to license Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology that combines computer vision and AI to bill customers directly as they walk out of the store, with no checkout required. Many cultural industries – museums and galleries, cinemas, concert halls, independent musicians, and artists – found means to create, perform, and connect with their audience through online platforms, which brings much appreciated comfort to people confined in their homes across the world.

While AI was proving to be invaluable for new drug discovery, it was also being used for drug repurposing which offers rapid and cost-effective solutions for therapeutic development. The pandemic proved to be a good opportunity for introducing advanced AI algorithms combined with network medicine for drug repurposing.

The advantage of drug repurposing is that that drug is already approved. It’s already gone through the regulatory process to show that it’s safe and effective for something. So, if you can find additional uses for that drug, you already know there’s a good safety profile. A classic way to repurpose drugs is through network medicine, which includes the construction of medical knowledge graphs containing relationships between different kinds of medical entities (e.g., diseases, drugs, and proteins) and predicts new links between existing approved drugs and diseases (e.g., COVID-19), this is where AI is proving to be a fantastic tool.

Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight. The surge of crisis innovation has only just begun and this year we will see the commercialization of large number of technologies from quantum computing to DNA storage of data. COVID-19 has forced everyone to transform digitally and this is generating Big Data in unprecedented volumes, technologies to store this data will become critical. This volume of data will mean that AI will become even more accurate in its predictiveness than before. Introduction of 5G in more countries would eventually enable the ecosystem of Internet of Things, remote surgery, and open new vistas in driverless cars. A contactless world will witness major innovation in robotic process automation. The use of augmented, virtual reality will become mainstream and miniaturization will perhaps usher in nanobots that will swim in our bloodstreams to deliver medicines to precisely where it is required.

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