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Detecting emerging diseases

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the importance of detecting and screening emerging diseases early on. The pandemic highlighted how easily healthcare systems can be pushed to their limits and revealed the weaknesses behind healthcare systems including financial capacities and the availability of personnel and infrastructures. After almost two years of grappling with the global pandemic and facing the heavy toll of 5.8 million deaths, some countries found ways for people to lead regular lives amidst the pandemic.[1]

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COVID-19, however, will not be the last pandemic plaguing humanity on a global scale. New diseases and viruses are expected to emerge, with climate change and growing populations. Thus, the need for early detection and effective response to infectious biological threats is becoming increasingly imperative.

In ensuring greater preparedness in managing future pandemics, the experience with COVID-19 provides us with four useful lessons for the future.

  1. Developing test kits and their extensive utilization in the general population

The development of self-tests and rapid tests, and their extensive use in the general population, proved to be a cheap method for screening the spread and detecting new epidemic centers during the COVID-19 crisis. Despite lower accuracy compared with standard lab testing, these tests provided valuable information on the evolution of diseases and enabled authorities to take necessary actions at a local level.

  1. Exploring the potential of technology

Technological trends like electronics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and high-performance computing can play a substantial role in the detection and confrontation of new infectious diseases. Multi-parametric predictive models have the potential to simulate the disease spread under various conditions, enabling authorities to be better prepared against different scenarios. In addition, the use of technology, combined with ongoing medical research, can accelerate the production of medicines that could otherwise take years to reach the trial phase. Last but not least, electronics and novel materials can be used for the implementation of portable sensing tools placed at key points of a geographic area (e.g., airports, train stations, etc.) that could be extremely useful for controlling an outbreak at a local or national level.

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  1. Controlling the spread of fake news

Along with the spread of COVID-19, the rise of fake news followed a similar exponential curve. During a pandemic, raising awareness among the public with credible sources, as well as the quick detection and characterization of fake news sources, is of great importance. To achieve this, listening to the experts, receiving contributions from widely accepted public figures, producing simplified information accessible by the public, and utilising all available communication channels to dispense credible information, reduces the negative effects of fake news.

  1. Being proactive is the best form of detection

With the looming possibility of another pandemic outbreak, humanity must invest in preparedness to be better equipped to confront similar challenges in the future. This includes investments in (1) educating the public on pandemics from an early age, (2) increasing the capacity and capabilities of healthcare systems, (3) improving flexibility of existing procedures such as avoiding vertical lock-downs and restraining measures, (4) increasing support to third-world countries, which are the most vulnerable to such conditions, (5) strengthening international collaboration in order to strengthen trust and reduce response time, and (6) enhancing research and development initiatives in order to create a detection and response inventory of technological, medical and biological tools.