Report: Transformative Role of Technology in Pandemic Preparedness and Response

In order to consider how innovative technology can support equitable outcomes to pandemic preparedness and response, GBCHealth, Wilton Park, and Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria brought together private sector technology, AI and machine learning experts with civil society representatives for a discussion in July. This article is based on the insights shared during the event. For more information, read the full event report here

COVID-19: The Unrealized Potential of Technology 

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated problems with the public health systems in both high- and low-income countries. Technology, including systems to track the spread of COVID-19, supply chain innovations, digital communications for sharing public health information, and more, played an important role in many countries’ pandemic responses. 

On the other hand, some of the most vulnerable populations around the world do not currently experience the benefits of these technologies. Many people do not have access to computers, smartphones, or telephones. For example, mobile broadband penetration stands at only about 34% in Africa, and over 800 million people on the continent do not have internet access. 

Lack of access to new technologies represents a barrier to progress and exacerbates inequalities for affected communities. There is a need to accelerate data availability to inform faster and more accurate decision-making by governments. Many countries lack basic technologies for pandemic preparedness, such as alert systems. Technology can also help overcome supply chain challenges, helping to get vaccines and other vital medical commodities to communities. The lack of communications technologies, such as personal computers and internet connectivity, can make stay-at-home restrictions unfeasible. 

COVID-19 Multi-Sector Partnerships: a Blueprint for Scaling Up Technology 

The technology and resources to develop these solutions in surveillance, diagnostics, supply chain, predictive analytics and more often lies within the private sector. Therefore, exploring public-private partnership models is key to improving the integration of these technologies into health systems around the world.

New partnerships created during the COVID-19 pandemic have leveraged private sector technology for improved surveillance to track COVID-19, service delivery and infrastructure, improving diagnostic tools, health workforce capacity-building, data collection and more. The multi-sector partnerships created over the last 18 months to accelerate the development of vaccines is one of the significant pandemic successes. 

Expanding Access to Technology

Maintaining and increasing private sector engagement to scale up the use of innovative technologies will be critical for improving pandemic preparedness, prevention, and response as well as supporting resilient and equitable health systems globally. For instance, private sector-led data collection from smartphones and health systems, combined with predictive technologies, can help to slow the spread of the virus. 

Technology such as AI conversational chatbots can also be used to better understand and respond to individual and community fears. Disinformation and misinformation have fueled lack of trust in vaccines, as well as non-health interventions like social distancing. 

The Role of Civil Society in Overcoming Obstacles 

Any new innovative technology will only make an impact if it’s embraced by the people it means to serve. The engagement of communities and civil society is required for new innovations to authentically address different community needs, contexts and inequities. 

For example, expanding traditional public health surveillance using technologies such as GPS tracking and facial recognition to control the spread of the COVID-19 have surfaced tensions in many countries and raised concerns that some governments are using the pandemic to extend control. 

It is critical that technology developers work with communities to learn about stigmas or resistance to using technology. Investment and design should focus on the community level to ensure that communities have the capacity to engage with new technology. Through quality assurance, support from the Global Fund and other multilaterals, data sharing, and taking measures to incentivize investment, actors can support effective partnerships for new technologies. 

As technology advances, it will be crucial to have equity at the core of progress. Private companies and institutions such as the Global Fund have a vital role to play and can act hand-in-hand with communities and civil society to drive investment and impact while protecting human rights. For more insights, read the full event report here

Partnership Roadblocks

Public-private partnerships to evaluate sustainable investments and market placement can help companies working in data systems and AI to make the massive investment these systems require. There is a need to shift the focus of AI investment from consumers with high levels of disposable income toward developing interventions for public good, such as working to avoid or predict the spread of diseases. Markets may be under-mature for incentivizing this investment at present, and this potential needs to be unlocked in order to drive innovation. 

Private companies need to recognize the benefits of developing technology while prioritizing community engagement. Cross-sector partnerships can help incentivize private investment by providing longer-term benefits such as market shaping and prototype testing, helping to ultimately scale up innovative tools successfully. Partnerships must also address issues relating to intellectual property rights, and establishing mutual accountability and liability.

Further Insights 

Matt RomneyReport: Transformative Role of Technology in Pandemic Preparedness and Response