Times of crisis and opportunity

Responses to the crisis have drawn upon the innovative potential of businesses


The private sector has delivered a wide range of innovative solutions to help cope with the health emergency, and emerge from it as robustly as possible. Many firms have newly deployed or expanded their use of digital technologies to maintain their operations. The biopharmaceutical industry, often in partnership with academia, has launched hundreds of clinical trials targeting COVID-19 drugs and vaccines (see figure). Academic start-up companies have played significant roles in these efforts.

Registered COVID-19 vaccine and drug studies by economy

Number of COVID-19 studies, January to December 8, 2020


Source: United States National Institutes of Health, (accessed 8 December 2020). StatLink 

Another phenomenon observed during the first months of the pandemic was the rapid development of “frugal innovations” in response to shortages of medical equipment and other emergency supplies. The general public has also contributed through online fora and maker spaces, where engineers and scientists have successfully redesigned ventilators and other medical equipment to permit rapid production increases from locally available components. The need for such innovation will persist as countries face challenges in ramping up the production and distribution of vaccines.

Emerging technologies have important roles to play in tackling the pandemic and its impacts

Digital and biomedical technologies are playing essential and highly visible roles in combatting the pandemic’s impacts and finding medical solutions, particularly with regards to rapid vaccine development. Two emerging technologies, engineering biology and robotics, have shown promise in helping enhance the health resiliency of societies. Engineering biology attempts to turn biotechnology into a discipline more reminiscent of engineering than biology, and is more sharply focused on industrial production. A recent technological breakthrough, the biofoundry, can greatly reduce the time from idea to product, and improve the reliability and reproducibility of bio-manufacturing. Biofoundries are highly automated facilities that follow detailed, complex workflows through the co-ordinated use of laboratory robots. The messenger RNA vaccines for COVID-19 (e.g. the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that have been the first to clear clinical trials) are especially amenable to this approach. Beyond their use in biofoundries, robotics can play other roles that enhance the health resiliency of societies, from aiding laboratory research, surgery and physical rehabilitation, to delivering medicines, transporting waste, combating loneliness and improving medical diagnostics and treatments. Governments possess several tools – including support to R&D and public-private partnerships – to accelerate the development and deployment of such technologies.

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