Commentary: COVID-19 crisis reveals the extraordinary promise of bioengineering
From tackling the spread through open-source platforms to delivering food using robots, the COVID-19 outbreak has shone a light on engineering’s potential to make a difference, says Gong Ke.
BEIJING: They say that science is about knowing and engineering is about doing.
But the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things can help us both know more and do better when it comes to improving lives worldwide.
Bioengineering, or combining engineering and medicine through emerging technologies, holds enormous promise for tackling disease, controlling pandemics and promoting healthy lives.
The rapid mobilisation in China and elsewhere to control the outbreak of COVID-19 has showcased the range of new innovations that were unavailable even just a few years ago to help deal with a global health emergency.
TRACKING THE SPREAD
Engineers at technology company Alibaba, for example, developed an open-source platform for tracking the spread of COVID-19, to help health authorities prevent and prepare for new cases.
By gathering more data, governments and agencies can take more informed decisions about travel restrictions, hygiene measures and medical provisions to better protect the public and minimise the threat.
Such a tool could also be harnessed to help prevent future outbreaks as part of a “One Health” model that monitors animal health and disease spread to predict when and how animal-borne infections might jump the species barrier to people.
Baidu, another technology company, has also developed an algorithm for predicting coronavirus’s biomolecular structure to accelerate research into a vaccine.
Honing such a process could help speed up the development of vaccines against other existing and emerging diseases, meaning immunity could be offered more quickly before an outbreak takes hold.
Computer engineering has a long tradition of using an “open-source” model, which not only allows players in the private sector to benefit from each other, but also enables the public sector to benefit from market-driven innovation to help manage social wellbeing.
Just in the past few weeks, my alma mater, Nankai University, open-sourced analytic software for infection prediction, showing scientists and engineers across both public and private sectors collaborating to fight against a common threat to mankind.
CONTAINING THE EPIDEMIC
Finally, advances in bioengineering have also provided emergency infrastructure to help both contain the epidemic and treat those affected.
The speciality 1,000-bed field hospital built in just 10 days in Wuhan was a feat of engineering willpower, and a case study for rapidly delivered infrastructure.
As well as prefabricated units, the hospital incorporated specialised ventilation systems and quarantine wards, which offer useful lessons for other regions coping with an outbreak of infectious disease, as well as other humanitarian situations.
Meanwhile, the use of robots to deliver medicines and food to quarantined patients in Hangzhou and other cities in China have helped reduce the risk of infection among medical staff, and limit the spread of disease, while also ensuring that patients’ needs are met.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and many of these solutions have come to the fore because the world is facing new and evolving challenges.
With China's recent reforms and economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, the demand for health services has become more intense, providing huge impetus for the development of bioengineering.
Between 2010 and 2018, investment in biomedical research and development more than doubled, alongside the rise of digital technology.
Internet companies, large and small, are using software that incorporates computer vision technology to serve community doctors and help them asses test results faster and more accurately, for example.
However, the current COVID-19 outbreak also exposes the gap between bioengineering development, and growing healthcare demands.
Governments and health authorities need to invest further in research and development, but more importantly, institutions need to foster inter-disciplinary research to allow new innovations that cross the divisions between traditional disciplines like medicine and engineering.
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At the same time, there are also inherent challenges to overcome in the adoption of new biomedical technology itself.
Coded gender biases in digital assistants like Siri, for example, risk reinforcing social behaviours and attitudes, while technologies such as drones raise issues including privacy, surveillance and individual freedom.
Health mapping using algorithms, for example, should not infringe the privacy of individuals, and measures are needed to ensure that data gathered on the spread of illness does not engender discrimination or even racism.
And the use of automatons in healthcare also has social implications when it comes to the emotional and pastoral care often provided by human nurses and doctors.
Addressing these kinds of challenges is not easy but it must start with engineers, regulators and governments establishing consensus around ethical principles of fairness, for example, and then converting this into measurable technical standards to ensure responsible conduct.
With every new development in science and technology, we must ensure the risks of unintended consequences are mitigated to help meet the UN’s goals of achieving a better, fairer life for everyone by 2030.
The COVID-19 epidemic has been a reminder of how globalisation has compounded public health issues, increasing the speed of disease spread and health risks, on the one hand.
On the other, it reminds us how important global efforts are to enhance our engineering capacity with powerful new tools to face the challenges of tomorrow.
If developed and adopted responsibly, smart bioengineering can help not only improve lives but save them as well.
Gong Ke is president of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO).