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COVID-19 Accelerates Scientific Advancements in Other Areas

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The Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy trial found that 13 per cent fewer severely ill patients died of Covid if they were taking the arthritis drug, baricitinib, to help reduce inflammation symptoms. This is a good example of how therapies for certain illnesses may also be effective in treating other conditions. In normal circumstances, scientists don’t always have the budget or mandate to see whether drugs for one disease might work against other diseases. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, substantial amounts of additional funding were made available for medical research. As a consequence, advancements have been made not only in tackling COVID-19, but in tackling other medical challenges too.

Here Charlie Rapple, co-founder of science communication platform Kudos, explores how COVID research has influenced recent scientific developments and why better dissemination of research helps empower people in the healthcare sector.

The pandemic demanded rapid advancement from scientific researchers and medical professionals to reduce the spread of the disease. This would not have been possible without “piggy backing” on innovations in other fields of medical research and practice. By the same token, advances made while tackling COVID could now help prevention and treatment of other illnesses.

Rapid developments

First, there is the vaccine. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the fastest successful vaccine development occurred in the 1960s, where scientists took four years to develop the vaccine for mumps. The COVID vaccine was developed in about ten months, changing the timeframe of possibility for all vaccines moving forwards.

Then there’s the way that medical data is analysed. As the pandemic unfolded, it was recognized that collecting and analysing data as quickly as possible would be pivotal to helping medical professionals make informed decisions. Data was made freely available to researchers, who were encouraged to use the latest Artificial Intelligence techniques in analysing the data, both to generate immediate insights, and to accelerate the development of the AI. This progress has transformed the way the healthcare industry interacts with data, accelerating the pace at which outbreaks of diseases such as monkey pox have been identified and managed. 

More affordable microscopes

AI has also been part of a step change in the affordability and availability of microscopes, with the potential to revolutionize disease analysis and management in lower income countries. Traditionally, microscopes need multiple lenses that focus on the different colours in visible light to stop samples appearing blurred, which meant they were expensive. The pandemic created an urgent need for more affordable microscopes to help identify disease variants. Researchers developed a new solution: each of the primary colours was shone separately onto samples, with the images being added to a deep learning network. Machine learning was then used to add colour to these images, enabling a low-cost microscope to produce full-colour images through. This significant reduction in cost allows faster and more widespread analysis of diseases and cells across the healthcare sector.

Developing optical technologies

Artificial Intelligence may also expand the relevance of other optical techniques. Optics have played a role in many aspects of the pandemic, from PCR testing to ultraviolet radiation for infection control. AI could help to increase the accuracy and efficiency of testing techniques, with the potential to automate infection control in future disease outbreaks.

What’s next?

The challenge now is to ensure that scientific advances made during the pandemic are broadly communicated and acted on. Scientific communication tends to take place in specialist language. To maximize the benefits of pandemic-led innovation, we need more active efforts to communicate science both across discipline boundaries, and also across sectoral boundaries – making sure it is found, understood and applied by industry, healthcare practitioners, patients, policy makers and others. Plain language summaries of research are an increasingly important part of the scientific communication process, but by themselves they are not enough – we need to do more to help people know where to find trustworthy summaries of science. The next step is bringing summaries together in one place and publicizing them to audiences both within and beyond academia. Healthcare professionals, policy makers and patients all benefit from better understanding of scientific progress and recommendations – whether it’s about emerging treatments options, or the effectiveness of different types of masks.

To explore the latest and most influential research on COVID-19 and its impact on the scientific and healthcare sectors, visit the collection at https://www.growkudos.com/showcase/collections/coronavirus.

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