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From Education to Biowarfare – The COVID-19 Pandemic Will Change the World Forever

Marconi Society Coronavirus and Our Connected World

By Whitfield Diffie

This problem arises at the precise moment that we have the communications technology to address it. This is not the first time that an existential problem has aligned with our technical capability. AIDS turned on transmission of genetic information from RNA to DNA, something that was not believed possible until the late 1970s. Had AIDS appeared during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it would not have been understood.

Surprises of great magnitude expose areas where we are ready to respond and areas where we are not.  The current pandemic is no exception.

Where We’re Ready:  The Network

The move to remote work, online ordering and delivery and virtual meetings has been well underway for several years. The epidemic may now make them the norm. Virtual travel, which also addresses resource consumption and the climate crisis, is likely to take over a much larger portion of business travel. Once this becomes a norm, it will be possible for people to perform many of the tasks for which personal contact has been considered essential.

For example, I am about to start teaching a course at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou remotely from my home in Woodside, California. Before COVID-19 was identified as a problem — and well before it was named — I considered proposing this remote class because of conflicts between commitments here and the university’s academic schedule. I was concerned that the university would not accept the idea of a remotely taught class, so did not propose it. When I learned that NYU’s Shanghai campus was going entirely online, I made the online proposition to Zhejiang and they accepted.

It won’t take long for the universities to realize that if your faculty can do a good job remotely, there is no reason to restrict instruction to co-located faculty. How long will it take the students to realize that they don’t need to pick one college or move to the university’s location?

Where We’re Not:  Biological Warfare

I hope that governments will realize that COVID-19 is a harbinger of biological warfare. To date, biowarfare has been inhibited by concern for exactly what is happening now: rapid unpredictable spread that might come back to get the launchers of the disease. The time for that view is over. The cost of bioengineering is declining. It will be within the budgets of groups who feel no responsibility for the welfare of large populations. There is going to be a big window of vulnerability during which it will be easier to develop new pathogens than to develop cures or immunizations.

What Can We Do?

Society can be made less subject to disease if the flows of possible pathogens are measured, analyzed, and controlled. We have crude examples of that today — bumping elbows rather than shaking hands — but nothing that is data-driven and scalable. Airflows need to be changed to make contagion less likely. For suspected COVID-19 cases, UChicago Medicine is using isolation rooms with special airflow designed to keep germs from getting into other rooms. This sort of idea is likely possible in public areas – I have seen a smoking area in a European airport that had no walls but outside of which I sensed no smell of smoke.

Protective gear, like masks, needs to be made more effective, more comfortable, more socially acceptable, and cheaper.

Detection of pathogens and disease needs vast amplification. Is it possible to detect the presence of a pathogen early without knowing anything except that it produces a change in human functioning? I presume so.

Methods such as analyzing the questions people ask of Google to detect whether they are ill can only be in its infancy. There are now network connected thermometers that predicted the spread of the flu in the US two weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own surveillance tool did so. Perhaps Nest thermostats may be useful in detecting illness. What can we infer if many people turn the temperature up or down?

There is much that can be done to speed the development of countermeasures to disease. I suspect we can learn a lot from the anti-computer-virus industry, which operates on Internet time. Our rules for vaccine development center on conventional metrics: customer satisfaction and big-pharma profits. At some point we are going to decide that something is better than nothing and that taking some risk may often save us from something much worse. All of this will work better if we begin planning for it.

The most interesting aspect of the COVID-19 epidemic will be its long-term impacts. I hope I live through it and get to see them.