Insights

Pandemic Lesson: Don’t leave your
phone
at home

Isolation Warning

Twenty years ago, fighting a pandemic would have been the exclusive domain of syringes and science. Fast forward to 2021, and there is a suite of digital tools that healthcare systems are using to battle covid.

However, to understand how technology has been used in the pandemic, start by going back twenty years to when gene sequencing started to take off. This technology allows scientists to understand the exact genetic makeup of an organism. Gene sequencing has evolved extremely fast. To illustrate, two decades ago, it took 13 years and about $2 billion to sequence the human genome. Sequencing in near real-time was impossible, and the cost was prohibitive.

Sequencing Human Genome

Graphic from the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Since the first human genome was sequenced, the technology has evolved rapidly and has helped fight new diseases. For example, during the SARS outbreak in Asia in 2002, 31 genomes of the virus were sequenced in the first three months.

The subsequent speed of technology development is illustrated by the pace of sequencing today. In contrast to the low level of sequencing for SARS, four months after SARS-CoV-2 was discovered in December 2019, 12,000 genomes had been sequenced. Furthermore, that information wasn’t held on private servers but was uploaded to open-access databases to enable fast knowledge sharing.

The use of gene sequencing technology today makes it possible to identify new strains of SARS-CoV-2 within hours and then link these samples to create family trees. This lineage can then help scientists track outbreaks more effectively.

The other technology that has been essential in fighting the pandemic is the smartphone.

It has been invaluable for three main reasons.

Firstly, it is the New Zealand government's tool to announce lockdowns. Mobile phone operators can remotely trigger a warning klaxon on every phone on their network. This is usually used to notify of civil defence emergencies. Health officials used this method to ensure that millions of people were updated about the moves to various levels of lockdown.

Secondly, the smartphone has been used for contact tracing. As nearly every New Zealander knows, scanning QR codes is an essential process to help prevent the spread of the pandemic. While the process appears straightforward, there’s a potent mix of technology behind the scenes. Bluetooth, cameras, databases, download mechanisms, notification processes and networks are all leveraged to create a powerful tool for public health officials to use. Key to the uptake of the contact tracing process has been the development of an easy-to-use app that requires no training for the user.

The importance of building a user-friendly app is often overlooked; however, it’s critical to acknowledge this. Today’s phones are high-speed computers with clever interfaces. There are many ways that apps can be created, but the best ones remove any complications for users.

Finally, phones have been essential for the widespread distribution of vaccine passports. In an analogue world, this process would have been entirely paper-based and riddled with errors. It would also have been costly because of the printing and distribution costs. While the current approach isn’t perfect – especially if you’re not familiar with the wallet apps on phones – it is still a vast improvement on what would have happened fifteen years ago.

So what’s the future role of technology in fighting pandemics?

For the last twenty years, the pace of innovation in biology technology has outpaced computing. In the previous two years, the sector has received an incredible boost with an enormous investment in fast disease detection, more effective vaccines and better ways of managing outbreaks. If there’s a silver lining from this pandemic, it’s that investment in new biology technologies will make it much easier to reduce the impacts of many diseases.

As an individual, you can also help fight pandemics by adhering to a straightforward rule - don’t leave your phone at home.


Roger Dennis
Roger Dennis
Futurist, friend of RUSH

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