Collective intelligence playing key role in virus battle

Collective intelligence playing key role in virus battle

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A researcher at Duke-NUS Medical School works on tracking genetic changes that speed testing of vaccines to target COVID-19, in Singapore. (Reuters)

Over the past few months, we have witnessed how a localized outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) can ravage the globe, paralyzing economies, disrupting usually resilient social and health care systems, and impacting people’s lives. The virulent nature of COVID-19 means that governments have been forced to make unprecedented and difficult decisions to suppress its transmission and reduce the mortality rate. Its novel nature also presents a challenge to the most effective response plans, as governments experiment and calibrate their plans each day.

East Asian countries with previous experience in outbreaks, such as SARS, have demonstrated swifter responses and better preparedness. For example, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea have adopted effective methods to contain the virus, such as strict lockdowns, the isolation of patients, contact tracing, and fever screening and quarantining for inbound and outbound travelers, all of which have been replicated elsewhere.

It is clear that, because of the complex, interconnected and unpredictable nature of this crisis, countries will need to mobilize their collective intelligence to combat the pandemic. Imagine if we could harness the collective brainpower of scientists, epidemiologists, virologists, economists and policymakers all over the world to address the multifarious and interdependent aspects of the pandemic. Now imagine if we could combine data sets to draw valuable insights and information about the current situation. This powerful combination is what will accelerate the world’s recovery from the pandemic.

There are many ways collective intelligence can provide a unique approach to addressing the pandemic. Firstly, crowdsourcing and combining real-time data sets from different sources will allow all those involved to better understand the problems at hand. By piecing together this bigger picture, governments can calibrate and evaluate their response plans accordingly. For example, epidemiologists at Imperial College London recently started publishing a weekly forecast of COVID-19 transmission and mortality rates. Policymakers can make use of this report by analyzing the impact of public health measures, such as mass testing and social distancing, on transmission and death rates in their countries.

In South Korea, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention manages a contact tracing system that fetches data from 28 organizations, including the National Police Agency, Credit Finance Association, three telecommunications companies and 22 credit card companies, to trace people’s movements and interactions with others. If someone tests positive with the virus, data can be extracted on who that person interacted with, the distance they were from each other, and the length of the interaction. The government also developed the Self Quarantine Safety Protection App, which allows users to monitor their condition, conduct self-diagnosis, and ensure they abide by quarantine orders by setting off an alarm if they venture out of their designated quarantine area. All this information is also shared with the government for it to take appropriate action. 

Secondly, establishing knowledge repositories on COVID-19 will assist governments in having a more coordinated response plan for the various affected industries, such as health, travel and tourism, education, finance, social protection, agriculture, transport, and public works. There have already been many valuable contributions in this regard. The World Health Organization (WHO) has published evidence-based technical guidance and toolkits for governments in a range of areas, such as clinical care, health workers, community engagement, mental health considerations, surveillance, response teams, and case investigation. Meanwhile, the OECD has compiled a series of policy responses and short-term measures enacted by governments worldwide on a range of topics, including health care, taxes and fiscal policy, economic policy, labor markets, social services, and open science.

Furthermore, The Lancet, which is the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical journal, has established a coronavirus resource center to provide free research content that could assist health workers in managing the pandemic. Another example is Field Ready, which is a nonprofit organization that is designing and sharing open-source products publicly to respond to the pandemic. Any manufacturer can take the designs and produce them locally, such as unique protective items, disposable lab supplies, face shields, and medical equipment repairs.

By piecing together the bigger picture, governments can calibrate and evaluate their response plans accordingly.

Sara Al-Mulla

Thirdly, collective intelligence can help in developing solutions effectively and swiftly. One of the key players in spearheading vaccine research is the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — a foundation that pools donations from public, private, philanthropic and civil society organizations in order to finance independent research projects revolving around emerging infectious diseases. Their biggest donors are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and a consortium of countries, namely Norway, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the UK. So far, the coalition has raised almost $1 billion and is funding nine different COVID-19 vaccine projects.

In a similar fashion, the WHO has recently published a global research road map, which outlines research priorities and selected knowledge gaps that require more research. This document serves as guidance for the global research community to optimize efforts and address critical gaps without duplication of their efforts. Most importantly, it is a pledge to provide equitable access to all innovations and research for public use.

Indeed, maximizing our collective intelligence will ensure we are able to generate valuable information and solutions that will guide us in our battle against COVID-19.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view