Public health officials talk about what innovators need to know during COVID-19 crisis

This morning MassChallenge hosted a virtual summit focused on innovation and the coronavirus.
By Laura Lovett
04:09 pm
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This morning MassChallenge hosted a virtual summit focused on innovation in the time of the coronavirus. This comes amid the growing number of coronavirus cases in the United States. As of today the World Health Organization reported over 42,000 cases in the U.S. alone.

This rising number has resulted in a slew of innovations to address some of the most pressing questions, including testing, treating and tracking the disease. But, like many other industries, startups are still learning about the need.

Nick Doughty, managing director of MassChallenge HealthTech, posed the question of what innovators need to know about how the government and public health officials are addressing this virus, to a panelist of insiders. Viewers got some good, and bad news from the speakers.

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"I do have some good news, which is that there is nothing about this virus or outbreak that can't be tackled with our traditional public health playbook," Margaret Bourdeaux, research director at Harvard Medical School, said during the panel discussion. "So that's great. We know what to do and what the plan has to be, but executing on that is going to require a lot of American camaraderie and ingenuity."

Bourdeaux noted that other countries who have had success flatting the curve have followed four main steps. The first is identifying cases, which will take massive testing efforts. Thus far, testing efforts have posed a challenge for the country. According to a report by Oxford University's Our World in Data, the per capita number of tests in the U.S. is 40 times lower than that in South Korea.

Last week a slew of take-home testing kits were scheduled to be launched, however the majority of these of offerings have since been rescinded, or hang in doubt, thanks to new warnings and regulatory clarifications issued this weekend by the FDA. It is important to note these are not the only testing efforts. Several industry players, such as Roche, are also creating new tests.

Second, Bourdeaux said successful countries have strengthened their abilities to implement contact tracing, meaning pinpointing which individuals have been exposed to a person with the virus.

Third, countries have to be able to support safely isolating patients who have been infected with the disease. But this will take what she calls some TLC, which could come in the form of digital tools.

"It's extremely difficult to be isolated, sick and not be able to be supported," she said. "I think what we have learned from other outbreaks is ... how to be with people without physically touching them."

Fourth, countries who have been able to get control of the virus have been able to support quarantine for those who have been exposed to the virus, but are not sick.

"We can do all those things, those things have been done [before] in the United States ... It does require innovation," she said. "Until that framework has come together, we do have to lean in on physical distancing, because that is the only thing we can do to break transmission. Once we start rolling out testing, contract tracing, safe and supportive isolation, and quarantine, we can start to relax those measures, and right now it's up to us. My only concern is not aligning policy and executing on the plan, then I'm worried."

While the world is currently quarantining, it's important to remember the well-being of those at home, particularly the senior population, said Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer at AARP.

"I don't want to forget about the person who is isolated and lonely, who is not connected. Think about easy plug-and-play if relying on voice technology and telephone calls," Yeh said. "Think about the hearing impaired, that is, two-thirds of everybody 70 and older. Are you thinking about captioning? What can you do with Bluetooth? What are you doing to test the hearing and making sure they can communicate clearly? This is a great opportunity for the innovators out there, so I think we have real positivity that can come out of this."

Across sectors there is unity on what needs to be done, said Juliette Kayyem, cofounder and CEO of Grip Mobility and a national security analyst for CNN. However, in the U.S. there is a lot of variation in quarantine requirements between states and even cities. She noted that this means the private sector has to be responsible for their employees.

"None of it gets done with a hodgepodge social isolation standard. We are the only country besides Brazil now without a strong national focus on a stay-at-home campaign ... so in the absence of that we look to other leadership," Kayyem said. "We saw it with governors and mayors. You saw it with CEOs. Twitter did it immediately. My advice to everyone here – everyone is a president – your capacity to control or set standards for good behavior for employees, and serve as a model for your conduct, and ability to help in a system that is not being unified."

While there may not be a central strategy for the entire U.S., Kayyem said that the private sector is busy organizing, and there are sources for startups to look up ways to help.

"There has been really good NGO and private-sector organization," she said. "There is a website called COVID-19 Action Tracker. It gives a list by state of how you can contribute resources, personnel, expertise and data management. Good news is the plan is sound and agreed upon by everyone who knows the field."

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