How Three Technologies Will Shape COVID-19 in 2022
Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

How Three Technologies Will Shape COVID-19 in 2022

The years-long COVID-19 pandemic did one thing: technologies that were at their infancy pre-pandemic finally had a chance to fully mature, thanks to waves of public and private funding that spurred the pandemic.

One of the most startling shifts came in the use of mRNA vaccines that helped curb the pandemic. The technology was the key to reopening the economy in California, allowing millions of people to go back to work, and, because the vaccine was created using a spike protein found on the virus, booster shots have been able to keep people relatively safe despite the morphing variants.

As the world faces a new threat with the COVID variant, Omicron, public health experts are looking to the science that helped create the first vaccine – the mRNA vaccine along with genomic sequencing – as they anticipate the virus’ path.

While scientists are still trying to understand the variant, which appears to be less dangerous to individuals than the Delta variant, one thing is agreed upon: having a booster helps protect people from COVID. Testing helps from spread. And genomic sequencing enables scientists to quickly identify new threats.

Why are these three developments so important to the future?

mRNA Vaccines and Boosters

The quick work done to develop the booster using mRNA, a vaccine that uses a molecule to create an immune response in the body, was tested during the pandemic and is likely to continue to be a go-to tool for scientists for future vaccines.

“What pandemic is doing is really pushing the application and maturation of these technologies that were already being developed,” said Dr. Shaun Yang, an assistant medical director at the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at UCLA.

The wealth of data accumulated from millions of people around the world may also help us develop cancer therapeutics or an HIV vaccine sooner than previously thought.

At-Home and At-School Testing

Diagnosing COVID-19 will be key in sustaining a reopened economy post-pandemic.

Rapid tests will be key to bolstering safety efforts in the U.S. as people continue to travel during the holidays, spend time at concerts and movie theaters, and return to in-person schooling.

Since cities have loosened pandemic restrictions, the Biden Administration began banking on rapid COVID-19 tests. The federal government invested a billion dollars into at-home rapid tests, increasing inventory in the U.S. so more people can buy them.

But, according to Dr. Eleazar Eskin, the UCLA chair of the Department of Computational Medicine, accessible testing will also make it easier to stop the virus from spreading in schools. His lab at UCLA developed SwabSeq, a $10 test that can test for multiple respiratory illnesses, not just the coronavirus. Instead of sending students home for a few days while teachers and classmates get tested for the coronavirus, schools can quickly figure out what ailment students have.

Eskin said, pre-pandemic, “what was missing was really a large-scale testing capacity for the virus. So we want to basically put in the system that would both detect new viruses and be able to get results within a couple of weeks.”

Genomic Sequencing and Surveillance

Sophisticated genomic sequencing technology is what allowed scientists across the world to create a vaccine without ever seeing or handling the virus. Chinese scientists sequenced the entire virus, basically writing out the genetic material and construction of COVID-19, and published it online.

Genomic surveillance is also what allowed scientists in South Africa to discover the Omicrom variant so quickly. The faster public health officials can find a variant, the better it can track its mutations, how fast it spreads, and how deadly the virus is. This can inform necessary public health decisions like reinstating social distancing rules.

It will also be key to stopping the next pandemic.

“New pathogens always emerge and never stop...surveillance needs to stay there constantly and that requires funding and legislative support. Knowing that if something happens in the world, you can immediately get information and study it.,” Yang said. “And that really tells you how unsuccessful we were for this pandemic. Because if we had a very good surveillance system, we would have had the opportunity to really put that virus under control.”

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