The COVID-19 pandemic raises our awareness of the importance of science, both in research and international cooperation – UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay

7 April 2020 — The United Nations is mobilizing international cooperation to harness the power of science to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, while also working with partners to explore innovative crisis responses tools.

Less than 100 days since the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified about the new coronavirus, research has accelerated at incredible speed. “I am glad to report that our research and development efforts are moving quickly,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a recent briefing. He shared that the Solidarity Trial – a WHO initiative that assesses potential treatments for COVID-19 – has already led to 74 countries joining or expressing interest to taking part in the trial.

More than 200 patients have already been randomly assigned to one of the studies, he said.  While randomized clinical trials normally take years to design and conduct, the Solidarity Trial will reduce the time taken by 80%, according to WHO.

The viral genome was mapped in early January and shared globally, which enabled tests to be developed and vaccine research to start. And about 20 institutions and companies are racing to develop a vaccine.

WHO is gathering the latest scientific findings and knowledge on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and compiling it in a database, after bringing together 300 scientists, researchers, national public health experts across the world to assess the current level of knowledge about the new virus and identify research priorities and gaps.

WHO is committed to ensuring that as medicines and vaccines are developed, they are shared equitably with all countries and people.

Republic of Korea’s response

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN specialized agency, is calling on the information and communications technology (ICT) community to rise to the challenge in the face of the pandemic's threat to humanity.

ITU has been holding a series of webinars on the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Kicking off the series, experts from the Republic of Korea shared how innovative technologies have been used to help flatten the curve in the East Asian country. 

For instance, the country has a smart quarantine information system that was put in place after the MERS outbreak in 2015. “Even before this COVID-19 outbreak, inbound travellers entering the Republic of Korea have been required to be checked for fever and to also to fill out a health questionnaire,” explained Seon Kui Lee, Director of the Division of Risk Assessment and International Cooperation at the Republic of Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Inbound travellers with symptoms or having travelled to or from a risk country are placed in quarantine and are required to download a self-health check mobile app to their smartphone and submit their health conditions on this app during their 14-day incubation period, explained Dr Lee.  

KCDC has also established a system which categorized confirmed cases into four categories: mild, moderate, severe and very severe, using AI. “Each category receives a different treatment and is admitted to a different facility according to the severity of the case,” said Dr Lee.

The authorities are also using location data from mobile phones, credit-card transaction records and closed-circuit television footage to trace and test people who might have recently come into contact with an infected person. In many places, detailed maps are published showing precise movements of infected people, encouraging others who thought they might have been in contact with an infected person to seek out testing. (Visit ITU website to find out more about the Republic of Korea’s COVID-19 responses).

Deployment of hospital robots in China

The Investment and Technology Promotion Office (ITPO) in Shanghai, a branch of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), partnered with the Beijing-based White Rhino Auto company to deliver unmanned vehicles to Wuhan’s Guanggu Field Hospital to transport medical supplies, deliver meals for doctors and patients, and complete other vital tasks. The use of the unmanned vehicles not only helped avoid cross-infection but also reduced the medical staff’s workload.

UNIDO’s ITPO Shanghai, which is committed to building public-private partnerships in the field of advanced digital production (ADP) technologies, has also partnered with CloudMinds, a technology company, which worked with Wuhan Wunchang Hospital and China Mobile to open a field hospital staffed by robots. Medical services were performed by robots and other devices. Patients at the facility wore smart bracelets and rings that synced with CloudMinds’ AI platform so their temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen levels could be monitored. Other robots provided patients with food, drinks, medicine and information, while others sprayed disinfectant and cleaned floors.

“Through these successful cases of high-tech companies fighting against the epidemic, we have seen the advantage of applying ADP technologies to effectively solve the pain points in containing the virus,” said Zhao Xiaolei, Head of ITPO Shanghai.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently hosted an online meeting of representatives of ministries in charge of science all over the world. Participants included 77 ministers, including governmental secretaries representing a total of 122 countries.

The objective of the meeting was to exchange views on the role of international cooperation in science and increased investment in the context of COVID-19, with UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay calling on governments to reinforce scientific cooperation and integrate open science in their research programmes to prevent and mitigate global crises.

“The COVID-19 pandemic raises our awareness of the importance of science, both in research and international cooperation,” the Director-General declared. “The present crisis also demonstrates the urgency of stepping up information sharing through open science.”

Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at WHO, said: “At a time when trade and transport barriers are impeding the movement of critical materials, it is important to underline that science be allowed to lead the global response to this pandemic.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is helping countries use the technique known as real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (real time RT-PCR).  IAEA says it is the most sensitive technique for detecting viruses currently available and the agency received request for support from about 90 Member States.  A first batch of equipment was sent to more than 40 countries.