Research, innovation vital in new COVID-19 world
- New Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office an opportunity for UK to increase impact, influence
- Global progress in health and wellbeing due to science, innovation, research, with UK playing leading role
- As a global community, no country safe until all countries safe
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After an incredibly difficult year, it is understandable that many people are looking forward to a ‘post-COVID’ era. But with no end to the pandemic in sight, we need to shift our thinking to start to see ourselves as societies living with this virus and focus on the long-term planning needed to tackle the enormous challenges ahead.
Epidemics, much like threats such as climate change and cyber-crime, do not respect national borders and we cannot build walls to keep them out. Science and innovation have a key role to play, not only in finding safe and effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, but also in addressing the complex wider issues facing our societies and economies, including the health toll of the COVID-19 response.
Global problems require coordinated international solutions.
Science and innovation
From advances in agriculture to the global spread of the internet, mobile and satellite connectivity, the UK has contributed significantly through transformative interdisciplinary research.
The UK has worked collaboratively with international partners to connect the strength of UK research with institutions and networks in low- and middle-income countries. This was particularly evident in the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Equity and access to healthcare for the world’s most vulnerable people are at the foundation of this research.
Vaccines and beyond
The UK’s leadership in COVID-19 vaccine development is well-known. Two of the most promising vaccine candidates globally, the Oxford and Imperial vaccines, have received funding from the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce and benefit from support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). These were originally supported to develop vaccines against diseases with epidemic potential in low- and middle-income countries, with Official Development Assistance funding through the UK Vaccine Network. Both projects are exploring opportunities for trials in developing countries alongside the UK, which represents a continued commitment to equity and access by the institutions and their funders.
However, the health response to COVID-19 goes much wider than vaccines.
For example, a team from the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Respiratory Health (RESPIRE) at the University of Edinburgh is focusing on priorities identified by the World Health Organization (WHO). In Malaysia, and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, they are working to address health, safety and psychological issues faced by frontline care workers. Together with partners in Pakistan, they are using artificial intelligence to detect COVID-19 in chest X-rays up to 200 times faster than manual image processing.
The COVIDaction programme has been building an innovation and technology pipeline for the international pandemic response and long-term recovery. It has already developed a large network of innovators working on data, resilient health systems, local production and local solutions. Similarly, UK funding is supporting entrepreneurs and engineers, such as Catherine Wanjoya in Kenya, who is designing incinerators to safely dispose of used personal protective equipment on-site in hospitals, and Chinenye Nwaogwugwu in Nigeria, who manufactures hand sanitiser that meets WHO standards.
The UK’s strong commitment to development through research and innovation has mutual benefits for both the UK and the world. Many of the innovations developed to solve unmet needs in low-income settings bring enterprising solutions back to the UK and other high-income countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has exposed the need for mutual learning and international partnerships on a larger scale.
As a global community, no country is safe until every country is safe. We have to take a long-term view to sustain the hard-won gains in global health and development.
The merger on 1 September of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is an opportunity for the UK to have even greater impact and influence.
By making a resolute commitment to international development research, the UK will maintain its standing as a global leader. It will be able to make vital contributions to solving the challenges that will surely arise in the future, while at the same time safeguarding our national security and bringing essential knowledge and benefits back to the UK.
Ultimately, research and innovation enable us to foster sustainable solutions that benefit everyone, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, never has that been more needed than it is today.