It’s difficult time of the global pandemic. So many cases have been diagnosed in the past two weeks as in the first six months of the pandemic – led by Brazil and India, where more than half of these cases have occurred. India, in particular, records more than 400,000 cases per day, and officials fear it is a vast undercoverage. Even in the United States, where cases are declining, vaccination has slow motion also, pushing any decisive end out of reach.
The fact that the pandemic is escalating, 16 months after its onset, makes urgent a handful of efforts to learn from this crisis in time to avoid the next. Some are political, highlighting ways in which countries and the World Health Organization could perform better. Others are commercial and present opportunities for technology companies. And some are efforts funded by large foundations. All aim to make this a moment of long-term change by listing the vulnerabilities this pandemic has exposed – and confirming that this type of opportunity has already been wasted.
“These are the same conversations we heard after the 2003 SARS outbreak, after the 2009 influenza pandemic, after the 2014 Ebola and 2016 MERS and 2018 Ebola outbreaks,” said Rick Bright, former director of the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. (BARDA), which resigned by the federal government to protest the way the Trump administration was treating Covid. “We keep having the same conversations – What lessons are we learning? What will we do better next time? And we still miss it. “
In March, Bright became senior vice president of pandemic prevention and response at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he is responsible for building a “pandemic prevention institute” as part of a $ 1 billion investment towards recovery from Covid. The Bright Institute is one of the first highly-funded efforts to try to create something new out of Covid litter: an analysis center that will sift through national genomic and social data repositories for patterns global.
But another major effort looks likely to be the first to write checks. Next month the Challenge of the Trinity, a competition based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, will award its top prizes for innovative approaches to mining public and private data: a top prize of £ 2million, with several final prizes of £ 1million pounds each. (This works out to approximately $ 2,777,000 and $ 1,398,000, respectively.) Teams were asked to pursue one or more goals: identify new outbreaks as early as possible; develop affordable and equitable measures to reduce transmission and spread; or address how outbreaks have hit poor countries and disadvantaged groups hardest, while making health care systems more resilient to such shocks.
The challenge is the creation of Sally Davies, a doctor and former chief medical officer of the United Kingdom, who became master (or chief) of Trinity College at the end of 2019. “What we are missing is not just data on the health – numbers infected and in hospital and improving – but behavioral data, economic data, mobility data, ”says Davies. “They will all have an impact on how we should make policy, how we should interpret our response, and how we might recover. Yet this data is not accessible to governments and public health agencies. The big tech companies own it. So how do we tap into this? I thought: a collaboration – bringing together academics, who can ask the questions rigorously, with the people who own the data and have the great engineers – to sponsor a public challenge asking people to come up with their solutions.
To do this, she recruited sponsorships and technical support from large tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Tencent, as well as media companies, pharmaceutical companies and research universities. Partners contribute to the total prize pool of £ 10million and also make the expertise of their staff available to small teams that apply. It’s a quick effort: the first round of submissions opened in February and ended in April. The entries, which are Public, include rapid network diagnostics, algorithms that monitor social media to analyze audience mood, models that track the global needle supply chain, and mapping of distribution networks in rural women’s areas who sell health products.