Biotech & Health

Tech’s role in the COVID-19 response: Assist, don’t reinvent

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The pandemic has affected just about every business in the world, but tech has also geared up to fight back in its own way, as we found out from speakers at Disrupt 2020. But technology has opted to take a back seat to frontline workers and find ways to support them rather than attempt to “solve” the issues at hand.

The founders of tech-forward healthcare startups Color and Carbon Health explained their approach in one panel, emphasizing that the startup mindset is a resilient and adaptable one.

“You’re seeing, I think, the distributed nature of the U.S., where at some point it’s clear that you can’t wait for someone to solve your problem, so people just start jumping in and building the solution themselves,” said Othman Laraki, Color’s CEO.

His company took on the issue of bottlenecks in the COVID-19 testing ecosystem, finding that with a few tweaks Color could contribute a considerable amount.

“We realized that there were several assets that we could bring to bear,” he said. “We decided to build a platform to get around some of the logistical constraints and the supply chain constraints around COVID testing. We did that, got large-scale COVID testing lab online, but also repurposed a lot of our digital platforms for COVID testing … I think we’re doing approximately 75% of all the testing in SF right now.”

Carbon Health CEO Eren Bali noted that companies like theirs are important props at a time when the medical infrastructure of the country buckles under pressure.

Carbon Health and Color founders see power in bringing healthcare to the edge

“At this point the U.S. doesn’t have the best public health system, but at the same time we have best-in-class private companies who can sometimes operate a lot more efficiently than governments can,” he said. “We also just recently launched a program to help COVID-positive patients get back to health quickly, a rehabilitation program. Because as you know even if you survive it doesn’t mean your body was not affected, there are permanent effects.”

This type of at-home care has become increasingly important, both to take pressure off hospitals and frontline workers and to improve accessibility to resources.

“Sometimes the cost of care is a lesser problem compared to the access,” said Laraki. “Like if you need to drive for an hour and take time out of your day, etc., if you’re an hourly worker. That’s what makes healthcare inaccessible.”

Another form of remote resources can be found in robots, which as the saying goes are best for “dirty, dull and dangerous” jobs. Most jobs can be considered dirty and dangerous now, which is why Boston Dynamics has fielded requests to help adapt its Spot quadrupedal robot to COVID-related purposes.

“As COVID evolved, we started to get requests for things like, could we do remote vital monitoring of patients, which surprised us. Obviously we weren’t thinking about that as an application beforehand,” said the company’s new CEO, Robert Playter, in an interview. “We’re also partnering with some companies on disinfecting payloads, so that Spot can carry this aerosol material through the facility.”

Boston Dynamics delivers plan for logistics robots as early as next year

“We tried to respond very quickly, partly out of a sense of, you know, obligation to the community and society that we do the right thing here,” he said. “People are realizing that and having a physical proxy for themselves, to be able to be present remotely, might be more important than they imagined before. You know, we’ve always thought of robots as being able to go into dangerous places. But now, you know, danger’s been redefined a little bit because of COVID. I think it’s opened up people’s imaginations about the applications of this kind of technology.”

Secretly we are all hoping for a knockout punch from the biotech world, and while that’s not likely, one of the most powerful biological technologies of our era, CRISPR, is in fact being brought to bear on the pandemic — but it may be more important for the next one.

“This is an opportunity to take a technology that naturally is all about detecting viruses — that’s what CRISPR does in [its native environment] bacteria — and repurposing it to use it as a rapid diagnostic for coronavirus,” said UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, one of the creators and principal stewards of the technology.

Jennifer Doudna sees CRISPR gene-editing tech as a Swiss Army knife for COVID-19 and beyond

Since it can detect the virus directly rather than the resultant antibodies or leftover bits from an immune reaction, a CRISPR-based test could be quicker and more accurate, she said:

“We’re finding in the laboratory that that means that you can get a signal faster, and you can also get a signal that is more directly correlated to the level of the virus.”

Unfortunately there’s little chance of it being adapted quick enough to do so for the present pandemic, but with a bit of work it could be invaluable for future outbreaks.

“It’s a toolbox, and there are many ways to repurpose it,” she said. “Scientists can reprogram the CRISPR system trivially, to target different sections of the coronavirus to make sure that we’re not missing viruses that have mutated. We’re already working on a strategy to co-detect influenza and coronavirus; as you know, it’s really important to be able to do that, but also to pivot very quickly to detect new viruses that are emerging.”

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