Information is the key to defeating COVID-19

The chief constraints on the world are physical and temporal. Abundant information, however, helps us evade and sometimes conquer these facts of life. Without the internet, life in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic would be far nastier and more brutish, even more solitary, and shorter, too. 

Medical staff arrive with a patient affected by COVID-19 at a hospital in Liege, Belgium, March 23, 2020 – via REUTERS

In our current predicament, the fundamental shortcomings of space and time are amplified. SARS-CoV-2 can’t replicate without our cells and our proximity to each other. So we separate for a period longer than the viral lifetime. Yet our bodies need calories, and time does not stop for debts and rents to be paid. 

So we must buy time with information

Extreme physical dis-connectivity requires extreme virtual connectivity. The speed of the virtual scale-up has been impressive. Teachers have adroitly shifted to meet with 30 million school children online. Colleges the same. Zoom video conferencing has spread faster than the virus, and Microsoft Teams added 12 million users in just one week, growing by more than a third to 44 million. Communities are leveraging social networks to support neighbors in a crunch. The government is (finally!) allowing doctors and patients to use FaceTime and Skype for remote video check-ups. The American internet infrastructure has handled increased demand admirably, with internet service providers and mobile carriers adding capacity and suspending data usage limits. 

Not every activity can be replicated online, however. And so we call on the wealth generated by our information-rich economy. Cash infusions, liquidity, loans, and forbearance can smooth away the sudden halt of face-to-face work — at least for a time. Massive investments in hospitals and medical supplies will save many of today’s ill, and tomorrow’s too. Wealth in a very real sense is resilience

But wealth must be constantly regenerated. We can only rely on past productivity for so long. And so we must get back to work — as quickly as possible, in as many places as possible. 

From macro to micro

We must replace our crucial macro response with an equally crucial micro recovery. Our initial macro efforts were broad, blunt, and indiscriminate. And understandably so. We didn’t have enough information to finely tune closings and distancing for particular people and places, nor to support earlier, more comprehensive travel bans, which would have been even more controversial. God willing, our macro efforts will spare large parts of the nation from intense breakouts of the type ravaging Milan, New York, and Seattle. 

We need to think about the next phase, however. To fully support our heroic medical community in hard-hit places and vulnerable Americans everywhere, we must quickly reignite as much of the economy as possible. And we can only do so with better information. 

Our micro efforts to target people, places, and things, and to collect exabytes of data, will be central. Which people and places are safe to return to work and school? For that, we need widespread testing. Which travel routes are safe? Which hospitals need (or can spare) extra capacity and supplies? Which early off-label and experimental therapies are showing the most promise? What are the immunity characteristics of COVID-19? Who contracted it without knowing it? And how will these answers inform our immunity strategy for any second wave this fall?

Better information can support a strategy of smart engagement. Without it, blunt macro policies will prevent the agility necessary in the days ahead. These efforts will require a heroic scale-up of information gathering tools and ideas. Most of them will not come from government (which will need to play a supporting and coordinating role), but from private firms and organizations. 

The app-ification of medicine

We can launch a new era in radically decentralized personal medicine — for better individual health, an explosion in physician productivity, a research renaissance into new therapies, and far better public health surveillance. 

In the future, massive data will detect outbreaks and smash them early, and most of the world economy can go on while risk zones are isolated and treated. Surveillance does not mean government watching your sneezes or temperature. It means mostly anonymous data collection, perhaps by third parties who can detect outbreaks and issue alerts. The goal is not zero cases. Such a goal would turn the government into an authoritarian police state. To protect both public health and private liberties, this is going to have to be a true public-private partnership.

All these things will require the FDA, CDC, and other federal agencies to adopt a new ethos of innovation, or to get out of the way. It will not come naturally. But these events must shake us out of our dangerous complacencies: the CDC’s faulty and thus delayed test; the FDA’s initial resistance to off-label and experimental therapies; the FDA’s reported resistance to Apple incorporating more health sensors and apps into the iPhone and Apple Watch.

A new bio boom The ultimate information tool is our understanding of the genome and all the “omics.” Although young, computational biology and related fields are now advancing at an astounding pace. They helped decode SARS-CoV-2’s genetic sequence in record time and, God willing, will help deliver a vaccine in record time as well. These codes of life can, along with our information technologies, lead to healthier bodies and more invaluable time with each other.

This article originally appeared at AEIdeas.

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