On 10 January 2020, the first novel coronavirus genome sequence was made public. This accomplishment effectively fired the starting gun in the race to find a treatment for COVID-19. Three decades ago, it took 13 years to sequence the human genome. The latest machines will do it in just over an hour. Advances in genome sequencing and in other healthcare technologies have played a critical role in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. The most critical healthcare technologies fall into three broad categories: diagnostics, therapy and vaccination.
Diagnostics – the foundation of an effective treatment strategy
Countries have elected to use different strategies to control infection during the pandemic. Some rely on social distancing and lockdowns, while others count on extensive diagnostics tests. All, however, rely on rapid diagnostics to understand the scale of the pandemic and the speed of transmission. Time is of the essence in the fight against the virus. Rapid diagnostics help interrupt transmission and ensure patients receive effective treatments. Cepheid was one of the first companies to develop a rapid molecular diagnostic test for COVID-19. It is a subsidiary of WHEB investee company Danaher. Work on a new rapid COVID-19 test started in early February 2020. The test received its Emergency Use Authorization just over a month later, on the 21st of March. The test can be used at the point-of-care and delivers a result in under an hour. Previous testing technologies often required more than 24 hours for test results to be confirmed.
Telehealth has also played a critical role in assisting in the deployment and effective use of diagnostics during the pandemic. Telehealth is the use of communication technology to deliver healthcare services. It enables patients to gain access to health services remotely without exposing themselves to high-risk clinical environments. Demand for telehealth has ballooned since the beginning of the pandemic. In the US, telehealth accounted for 21% of total health ‘visits’ last July compared to less than 0.01% before the pandemic. Cerner, a Healthcare IT company in the WHEB strategy, recently launched a new video care platform to address this growing demand for virtual health solutions.
Developing new therapies to treat COVID-19
As a new virus to human beings, there were of course no existing treatments for COVID-19. With the growing scale and severity of the pandemic, researchers did not have time to develop entirely new treatments which typically take years if not decades to come to fruition. Instead, using new artificial intelligence (“AI”) technologies, researchers tried to find existing drugs that could be used to treat the disease. Known as ‘drug repurposing’, this process can also take many years. AI was used to dramatically accelerate the process of discovery, screening and validation. Several companies have successfully used AI algorithms to identify drug candidates that can be repurposed for COVID-19.
Unprecedented pace of vaccine research and development
In addition to developing therapies for treating the disease, huge efforts have been made to develop vaccines that prevent the disease from developing in the first place. While vaccines are not a silver bullet to end the pandemic, they are our best shot to return to some semblance of normality.
The pace at which healthcare businesses have developed and approved COVID-19 vaccines is entirely without precedent. A vaccine has rarely been developed in less than 5 years. We now have several approved vaccines that have been developed and approved in under one year. WHEB’s investee company ICON is a clinical research organisation which conducts trials on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the company has supported more than 80 COVID-19 related projects. One of them included the clinical trials of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine. It was the first vaccine with positive efficacy results from a phase 3 study and was approved just seven months after the start of clinical trials! This extraordinarily rapid process was made possible using innovative approaches and technologies that enabled ICON and their clients to set up testing infrastructure rapidly, recruit patients and conduct monitoring and assessment, often remotely.
Supporting healthier populations
There is an abundance of evidence that pandemics like COVID-19 are becoming increasingly common occurrences. The reasons for this are not expected to change any time soon. One way to prevent these pandemics from having such a devastating impact though is to ensure that global populations are healthier. 94% of deaths involving COVID-19 in the US had at least one underlying health condition, according to one study. In the UK, 74% of critically ill COVID patients were either overweight or obese. Supporting better underlying health in the community is one important way to reduce the death toll of future pandemics. Here too, healthcare technologies can play an important role. The most effective approaches involve prevention and optimal disease management. Both of which can be facilitated by electronic health records (EHRs) and population health management. Cerner is a leading player in both areas. Population health analytics can make use of EHR data to provide more precisely targeted preventative healthcare that ensure patients remain healthy.
One early conclusion that we can draw from the COVID-19 pandemic is the critical importance of advanced healthcare technologies. When the next pandemic happens, as it almost inevitably will, we can be all but certain that they will play an important role again.