Written by Mihalis Kritikos,
As the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic intensifies, technological applications and initiatives are multiplying in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease, treat patients and facilitate the work of overworked healthcare workers. At a time when everyone needs better information, including epidemic disease modellers, state authorities, international organisations and people in quarantine, measures such as social distancing, and digital information and surveillance technologies have been unleashed in an unprecedented manner to collect data and reliable evidence in support of public health decision-making.
Countries around the world are authorising clinical trials involving experimental techniques such as gene editing, synthetic biology and nanotechnologies, in a race to prepare and testing future vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. Artificial intelligence, robots and drones are helping to track the disease and enforce restrictive measures while service robots are being deployed in various ways in hospitals.
Bottom-up technologies, such as 3D printing and open-software solutions are being harnessed to address the growing need for medical hardware (e.g. masks, ventilators and breathing filters) and optimise the supply of the necessary medical equipment to hospitals. Blockchain applications can meanwhile track contagion, manage insurance payments related to the disease outbreak, sustain medical supply chains and facilitate the performance of much-needed EU-wide clinical trials in an effective, transparent and credible manner.
At the same time, throughout this pandemic crisis, telehealth technologies have emerged as a cost-effective means to slow the virus’s spread and to maintain hospital capacity, by operating as a triage system, keeping those with moderate symptoms at home and routing more severe cases to hospitals.
But are these technologies safe and effective in the context of Covid-19? Have they been tested before in a public health emergency context? Are they ready to provide tangible and operative solutions that could facilitate governments’ efforts to address the many challenges associated with this pandemic? Do they strengthen the evidence-based character of the response measures taken worldwide? Can possible regulatory hurdles concerning their authorisation be by-passed via ad hoc fast-track procedures? Does their extensive or immediate use involve risks and threaten our values and rights in the long run?
EPRS in-depth analysis
This well-timed EPRS publication on the ten technologies central to the fight against Covid-19 offers some well-informed answers to these crucial questions. More importantly, it constitutes a much-needed analysis of what is at stake, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, in technological terms world-wide, paying particular attention to applications that have either been put in use or are being tested before operational deployment.
The analysis presents a non-exhaustive overview of the technologies currently in use, highlighting their main features and significance in the response to the coronavirus pandemic but also their possible limitations. It examines a wide range of technological applications developed to monitor and contain the rapid spread of the disease but also to ensure that public health institutions maintain their capacity to meet the ever-increasing needs generated by the pandemic.
However, given that most of these technological applications have been mainstreamed or put forward in a hasty decision-making environment where decisions are extremely reactive, careful thought must also be given to their potential repercussions. In the context of the current pandemic, governments have launched numerous data-collection and location-tracking technological applications by means of emergency laws that involve the temporary suspension of fundamental rights, triggering questions about the potential future impact on hard-won civil liberties and concerns about state authorities maintaining heightened levels of surveillance even after the pandemic has ended. Medical devices and in-vitro diagnostics vaccines are meanwhile in the pipeline for fast-tracked authorisation although most of these technologies have never been applied in a medical emergency context before. Furthermore, all this also raises the question of whether the fight against Covid-19 will facilitate even more aggressive automation of daily life when everything returns to ‘normal’.
The analysis addresses the possible lasting legal and ethical questions that policy-makers, legislators and expert groups that advise governments and international organisations and will be confronted with very soon and brings forward some preliminary considerations. It illustrates the main regulatory and socio-ethical dilemmas that the manifold use of these technologies poses when used in a public-health emergency context such as the current one but also those that will arise once the virus has subsided. The analysis identifies the legal challenges that emerging technologies, such as those currently employed in the context of Covid-19 pose to existing EU legislation, examines possible legal gaps and proposes options for the emergency authorisation of some of the technological applications under consideration.
Although the focus of this analysis is on technological applications presenting solutions to pressing pandemic-related problems, this piece of work does not aim to reinforce ideas of techno-solutionism. In other words, technological applications in their own right cannot solve complex societal challenges, such as those associated with the current pandemic. Rather, the main findings of the analysis indicate that technology cannot in itself replace or make up for other public policy measures but it does have an increasingly critical role to play in emergency responses in a variety of domains.
The current crisis has demonstrated not only the vulnerability of global public health systems but also the potential of certain emerging technological pathways to fight this pandemic disease at the levels of prevention, containment and treatment. The first major pandemic of our century, Covid-19 represents an excellent opportunity for policy-makers and regulators to reflect on the legal plausibility, ethical soundness and effectiveness of deploying emerging technologies under extreme time pressure. Striking the right balance will be crucial when it comes to maintaining the public’s trust in evidence-based public health interventions and for safeguarding the potential of promising – albeit immature – technologies to serve the public interest.
Read the complete ‘in-depth analysis’ on ‘Ten technologies to fight coronavirus‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.