Ebola and in­no­va­tion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Lives are not all that have been lost in the on­go­ing Ebola cri­sis. In re­cent dis­cus­sions about how to com­bat the virus, the me­thod­i­cal rigor of sci­ence and medicine has given way to hy­per­bolic pol­i­tics and pub­lic hys­te­ria. To be sure, in­formed, data-driven pub­lic pol­icy to man­age the cur­rent out­break must re­main a top pri­or­ity. But it is equally im­por­tant to take stock of the epi­demic’s lessons and to en­sure that we are pre­pared for the emer­gence of other dis­eases.

Two ma­jor lessons should be learned from the cur­rent Ebola out­break. First, the fight against a sin­gle dis­ease must not come at the ex­pense of strength­en­ing an en­tire health­care sys­tem. Coun­tries with frag­ile health sys­tems may be able to tackle a given ail­ment with the help of NGOs and for­eign gov­ern­ments, but they are likely to be dan­ger­ously un­pre­pared when con­fronted with un­ex­pected out­breaks of new dis­eases.

In Liberia, for ex­am­ple, the preva­lence of malaria in chil­dren un­der the age of five de­clined from 66% in 2005 to be­low 32% in 2011. Nonethe­less, when the Ebola virus en­tered Liberia from neigh­bor­ing Guinea ear­lier this year, the coun­try’s health-care in­fra­struc­ture was quickly over­whelmed. More than 2,000 Liberi­ans have died of the dis­ease, and the virus re­mains ram­pant. Sim­i­larly, un­less they strengthen the health-care sys­tem as a whole, other coun­tries that have per­formed well in some ar­eas – say, the fight against Ebola – could still face large death tolls and long-term eco­nomic tur­moil.

The sec­ond les­son that the Ebola epi­demic holds con­cerns ma­jor gaps in our abil­ity to de­velop new meth­ods and tech­nolo­gies to fight the virus and other dis­eases like it. Our poli­cies and ap­proaches have too of­ten been re­ac­tive, not proac­tive. As a re­sult, af­ford­able and easy-to-use pro­tec­tive equip­ment for front­line health-care work­ers and point-of­care tests that are quick, re­li­able, ro­bust, and cost-ef­fec­tive have been hard to find. The pub­lic and non-profit sec­tors should support in­no­va­tions that are not only fo­cused on solv­ing im­me­di­ate prob­lems, but that also ad­dress po­ten­tial fu­ture chal­lenges.

The United States Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment, the White House Of­fice of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, and the Depart­ment of De­fense have de­clared Ebola a “Grand Chal­lenge for De­vel­op­ment” and have launched an ef­fort to spon­sor prac­ti­cal, cost-ef­fec­tive in­no­va­tions to treat and pre­vent it. This is an im­por­tant step in the right di­rec­tion, but such ef­forts need to start well be­fore an out­break if they are to have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact. New tech­nolo­gies re­quire time to be tested be­fore they can be de­ployed in the field, and scal­ing up to large-scale pro­duc­tion is a ma­jor chal­lenge for any new in­ven­tion.

The Ebola cri­sis has shown that we need to think about de­vel­op­ing our abil­ity to in­no­vate at the most ba­sic level. Just as health-care sys­tems in the de­vel­op­ing world need to be strength­ened, we also need to build up our ca­pac­ity to de­velop new so­lu­tions for sim­i­lar chal­lenges when they arise.

En­gi­neer­ing schools of­ten fail to pro­vide stu­dents with knowl­edge or un­der­stand­ing of the chal­lenges faced by those out­side of the de­vel­oped world. Med­i­cal stu­dents and pub­lichealth pro­fes­sion­als some­times study or do in­tern­ships in places where the dis­ease bur­den is high; but a minis­cule num­ber of sim­i­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties are avail­able to en­gi­neers and tech­nol­o­gists. As a re­sult, tal­ented sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers are of­ten grossly un­aware of prob­lems that need to be solved, and even those that might be mo­ti­vated to do so are un­likely to ap­ply their train­ing to ad­dress new and emerg­ing threats.

De­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy takes time and com­mit­ment. In ad­di­tion to pro­mot­ing aware­ness of global chal­lenges in sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing schools, and pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to start ad­dress­ing them in the field, we need to es­tab­lish mech­a­nisms that will foster and sus­tain the ideas that this process brings for­ward. By cre­at­ing re­search grants that do not ex­pire as soon as an out­break is un­der con­trol, we would sub­stan­tially in­crease our port­fo­lio of so­lu­tions to man­age the next epi­demic bet­ter.

When faced with the next Ebola-like chal­lenge, our abil­ity to meet it will de­pend on the strength of lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions and our abil­ity to de­velop the right tools with which to fight it. There is no telling how many lives may de­pend on the steps we take now.

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