In the past few decades, medicine and healthcare systems advanced at an unprecedented rate. We successfully completed the Human Genome project and made great advances in the fields of stems cells and cancer therapies. Likewise, gene therapy, where one dose is all you need to treat what was previously known as “a life-long disease”, has now become a reality. It is now on its way to becoming more readily accessible. This is all thanks to the successes and advances we made in these fields in the recent decades.
Furthermore, breakthrough technologies and innovations in the manufacturing of medicines and biologics are providing real time solutions to many historical challenges that prevented such novel medicines from becoming readily accessible by everyone.
In this week’s Topic in focus, we did also explore loss of smell due to the corona virus. To read the full article, please visit our article: Anosmia or Loss of Smell Due to COVID-19 – Here is What You Need to Know.
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A Remarkable Event in The Human History Drove Innovation
Pharmaceutical firms, biotech innovators and machine making companies were all able to collaboratively provide ventilators in a fraction of the time previously needed.
However, a remarkable event in the human history has now taken place and it might have changed the way we do things forever. Since the breakout of COVID-19, our healthcare systems have been experiencing an unprecedented shock to their systems which led to a complete structural revamp.
Many achievements were accomplished. Hospitals were built in two weeks. Manufacturing plants around the world were repurposed to support the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Pharmaceutical firms, Biotech innovators and machine making companies were all able to collaboratively provide ventilators in a fraction of the time previously needed. Patient testing and analysis of results were performed in a few hours rather than days. The benefits of Telemedicine (using telecommunication technologies to deliver health services to patients) are now widely felt across the public. This is just to name a few. There were also many other achievements accomplished by the challenges provoked by the breakout of COVID-19 that are not of less significance than those mentioned above.
But all those events only trigger our minds to wonder; how will our healthcare systems be like once all this COVID-19 thing is over? Will we still have to wait for hours in emergency rooms to get checked specially now that it became evident that they are understaffed? Will the number of healthcare workers increase to meet the pressure they are under? Will healthcare workers get better compensations and better working hours for their novel jobs after we all realized the value they provide and the sacrifices they make everyday? Will all our achievements seen in overcoming the challenges of COVID-19 open our eyes into new ways to improving our systems and how they operate?
Well, no one knows the answers to these questions but one thing we all know for sure is that things will never be the same again.
How Did We Do Things Pre COVID-19 and What Exceptions Were Made During The Pandemic?
New Vaccine Development
Since the breakout of COVID-19, talks about developing a vaccine to provide immunity to the general public against this novel virus have become hot in the news. Many pharmaceutical companies are now racing to be the first to deliver the vaccine to the market. What has really changed is that in this instance we are talking about a period of 1 to 2 years or sometimes even 8 months when such complex products usually took us just under 10 to 15 years to commercialize.
Having read the sentence above one year ago, you would have thought it belonged to a book that described how life would be in 2200…
This is because the process of manufacturing a vaccine is very complex and is highly regulated. In the US, the process is overseen by the Centre for Biologics Evaluation and Research which is part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The process is broken down into a number of stages: Exploratory stage, Pre-clinical trials on animals stages and then clinical trials on humans stages which include 3 phases. A vaccine needs to show safety and efficacy on animals before it can be trialled on a small group of humans during the clinical trials stage.
Patients are given the vaccine and then they are exposed to the pathogen. They are then monitored to assess the safety of the dose and the immune response it induces. As you can imagine, this process can take a long time before moving to a larger group of participants and into a more randomized testing in phases two and three of the clinical trials.
Each one of those stages of course requires going through lots of stringent regulatory checks-points that might put the development into further delays.
Overall this process can take up to 12 to 15 years to completion.
However, in response to the COVID-19 breakout, we are talking about doing all that in less than a year, so what exceptions were made?
Many organisations and big pharmaceutical firms joined forces to accelerate vaccine development and approval processes. For example, Oxford Biomedica joined forces with biotech companies that focus on enabling faster and more efficient medicine manufacturing processes for the development of vaccines and biologics.
Furthermore, regulatory agencies such as The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) prioritised trial applications for COVID-19. They approved the COVID-19 Oxford Vaccine Trial in just a little over a working week. In fact, vaccine designing at Oxford only started in January this year. Getting approval for trials in a timeframe of 2 months is exceptional. Furthermore, big Pharma giant, AstraZeneca, and the University of Oxford announced an agreement for the global development and distribution of the vaccine.
Going the way it is going now, with all the support and the unparalleled hard work and efforts going into developing the vaccine, we might be able to see the vaccine widely available in a year time!
Exceptions Were Made, We Worked Better Together.
Production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
To be able to develop a new product that is intended for use in a sterile set or for purposes where cleanliness is critical, manufacturers usually need to adhere to stringent regulations and rules governed by product safety legislations. Such legislation followed in Europe and currently in the UK is the EU Regulation 2016/425 on Personal Protective Equipment and the WHO guidelines. They will need to have their PPE conformity assessed for Type Approval and Quality Assurance tests. These need to follow the essential health and safety requirements set in the regulations. To the read the full EU legislation for PPE production please press on this link here.
However, to assist in accelerating COVID-19 vaccine development, the Office for Product Safety and Standards in the UK made changes to this process. These rules and guidelines were eased to allow manufacturers to meet the demand created on them and to also reduce the barriers for entry for new PPE manufacturers. This is all to help minimize the impact of COVID-19 on our societies and to help in reducing the rate of infection. To read the full guidance please press on the link here.
Uneven distribution and Use of Technological Advances – Use and Access to E-Commerce
In the developed world, large and small businesses alike both have access to technological advances and services such as online retailing and shops, i.e. e-commerce. However, this statement is not true for many other countries in parts of the developing world. Even though internet infrastructure and access to telecommunication are becoming widely available in most places, full utilization of the technology is not always done.
Small business owners in countries like Jordan were forced to make use of e-commerce. Even some small Falafel corner shops are now able to receive and track orders on their websites.
If we look at the bright side, COVID-19 encouraged small businesses to accelerate the adoption of technology into their system and led to an advancement that would have otherwise probably taken a number of years to make the transition.
It Is True That in Every Crisis, There Are Opportunities.
Exceptions Were Made with COVID-19 – We Worked Better Together
If we proved anything in facing the challenges of the COVID-19, is that we were united to fight this virus all together. The COVID-19 crisis proved to us that we work better together. Amazing collaborations between many innovative institutions who worked hand in hand to fight the virus were some of the most beautiful stories we read. They gave hope to most of us. We saw universities and hospitals such as those of UCL partnering with car making companies such as Mercedes to codevelop real time solutions for issues seen with the limited availability of ventilators. This was to support hospitals in their fight to combat the pressure they had on the very limited number of ventilators available.
But How Will All These Exceptions And Achievements Influence Our Future?
Life Post COVID-19, If Anything, Will Be Different but Probably Faster
Many changes to our daily lives have occurred due to the outbreak of COVID-19. A significant one is remote working. While Neil my colleague used to spend 2 hours a day commuting back and forth to work, now he can use those two hours to spend more time with his family. Furthermore, he might now be less stressed about all the traffic and long driving hours he was encountering daily on his way to work.
Rather than chatting to Mr. Reguma for 15 minutes in the corridor and instead of attending 2 hours of meetings a day where very little was often accomplished, he is now able use these hours to complete his work with no distractions. Now his work gets completed faster and he is using his time more efficiently. Some companies like Facebook among many others even allowed their workers to work remotely till the end of the year already.
The education system kept its structure for many decades unchanged, probably the challenges and restrictions that came with the COVID-19 forced it to finally evolve?
We did not only change the way we work and realized things can be done faster, we did also learn a lot about ourselves.
Many things we believed were necessary are now seen secondary. Let’s take the education sector as an example. Many students around the world are not able to attend their classes and lectures as per normal. Instead, new solutions and exceptions were made. In some countries, kids’ school classes were aired on TV and lectures and exams were all made online. The education system kept its structure for many decades unchanged, probably the challenges and restrictions that came with the COVID-19 forced it to finally evolve?
For many generations now, students went to their lecture halls where professors just stood there and talked at them for hours? If you take a look at most other industries and institutions, many of them totally revolutionized the way they operate apart totally in the past few decades. But this change has been so much slower for our educational sector. Probably a serious incident like COVID-19 was what needed to drive such a change?
While for sure we cannot say that all these changes are for the better, one thing we can say for sure is that life after COVID-19 will be significantly different.
Earth Was The Biggest Winner – But for How Long?
If there was one winner of this crisis, it was for sure mother earth. On the 7th of April of 2020, global levels of carbon dioxide emissions dropped to levels not seen since 2006. The graph below is taken from a paper by Le Quere which discusses the temporary reductions of CO2 emissions during the COVID19-induced lockdown. It shows the global CO2 emissions between 1970 and 2020. On the right side, you can see how levels of CO2 emissions were dropping over the first 4 months of this year.
Reductions in global CO2 levels can be explained by the many reductions in demand experienced across industries such as the coal, oil, gas, electricity and renewables ones. According to an article published on SaveOnEnergy, global demands for coal and oil decreased by 8% and 5% in the first quarter of 2020 respectively. Global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions might however help in maintaining such trends in CO2 reductions even after the lockdowns are over. SaveOnEnergy quotes that nearly 12 energy companies worldwide have agreed to cut annual output of CO2 emissions by 36 million to 52 million tonnes by 2025.
Yes the global emissions due to the lockdown was reduced, but for how long can we stay in lockdown?
Meanwhile these are all good news, surprising reports from early June showed that despite all these promising numbers and reductions to the CO2 emissions over the last few months, late may CO2 emissions peak compared to those of may 2019 peak is surprisingly higher.
Even though there was a 17% total reduction in the global CO2 emissions in the last months, the total estimated overall reduction for 2020 would only be between 4% and 7% as we ease the lockdown.
Serious changes to our systems and processes are needed if we want to save mother earth forever.
The Future Will Definitely Not be The Same Again.
Newton’s third law of motion tells us: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And if anything, this had been true for the last three to four months.
The virus scared us, took away many of our loved ones and prevented us from pursuing our normal daily activities. We reacted, lockdowns were forced, economies took a pause, airplanes were grounded, offices were emptied and religious places of worships were evacuated.
But let’s not forget that a ventilator was made in a very short time, masks were made at home, hospitals were built in two weeks and vaccines are currently being developed in less than a year time if all goes well.
However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows. Some systems were damaged and might never heal again. In some instances, international trusts and relationships between leading countries were broken such as those between the US and China. We all know that trust takes so much longer to rebuild once it has been broken.