Out of order: Developing solutions

As COVID-19 spreads, it can be a reminder that science and health research are community efforts, and to optimize our opportunities for success and serendipity, we must open that community as widely as we can

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Let me state for the record that if my house is ever on fire, I will be eternally grateful for any assistance I receive from the fire department and my neighbors. In an emergency, we are foolish not to accept help from any source.
When it comes to fire prevention, however, the ball is in my court. Sure, I can still look for external help, but the onus is squarely on my actions.
I think of this as I monitor the global response to COVID-19. Health departments worldwide seek to identify and quarantine infected individuals. Industry and governments collaborate to design possible treatments. Others develop rapid diagnostic kits to identify hotspots.
The speed with which these teams and resources have been assembled has been blinding. By comparison, Ebola was an afternoon’s stroll and SARS was positively glacial.
This is not a criticism of those previous efforts so much as a statement of how far the various technologies have evolved and the degree to which lessons were learned.
Again, however, this is the effort that goes into quenching the raging fires. Who is taking charge of fire prevention once the emergency is considered done?
Organizations like the CDC and WHO have people whose entire careers involve identifying the next health challenge in both the developed and the developing world. Likewise, small companies and non-governmental organizations make it their missions to focus on developing world health.
But as developed world eyes move to the next flames, it becomes more difficult to sustain the energies expended in crisis for further epidemiological and medical understanding.
To maintain the metaphor, I spent weeks hearing nothing but stories about Australia’s devastating wildfires. And then I didn’t. Weeks later, a random comment on Twitter informed me that the fires had been contained.
When the urgency of SARS died down, efforts to develop a vaccine against that coronavirus also diminished, to languish in freezers and servers. In the absence of terror, the world moved onto more commercially productive projects.
So, much as fire prevention in my home is my responsibility, healthcare and disease prevention in the developing world is the developing world’s responsibility. Developed world patronage simply is not enough if these countries hope to not only survive, but also thrive.
Nicely, there is an array of locals eager to grasp that responsibility, focused on developing world solutions for developing world challenges. Rather than wait for top-down leadership, they seek to lead from the ground up, to take their unique expertise and understanding of local conditions and cultures and meld it with lessons and technologies learned elsewhere.
For about a year or so, I have been watching a group known as Seeding Labs. Their mission statement: “Empowering every scientist to transform the world.” Their tagline: “Talent is everywhere. Resources are not.”
Primarily, they offer a scientific instrumentation exchange, where anyone can donate used or new laboratory equipment to be shipped to resource-challenged facilities around the world.
Recognizing that an instrument is only as effective as its end-user is skilled, however, they also offer a Telescience program. Exclusively sponsored by Millipore Sigma, the video series connects scientists around the world to facilitate research and learning.
They point to the success of the rapid response by Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) to Cyclone Idai in early 2019. Using equipment that had only arrived four months earlier, MUST, UNICEF and LIKA, a Brazilian immunology lab, partnered to test storm water for tuberculosis, malaria and cholera. Without that gear and will, who knows what lives may have been altered or lost.
Months earlier, researchers from Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) in Dominican Republic screened mosquitoes to pre-emptively identify the viruses they carried, such as Zika, dengue and chikingunya. This data helped them pinpoint mosquito population control efforts.
Using local knowledge and motivated to help their neighbors, researchers in the developing world offer perspectives that are not available to researchers living in Atlanta or Prague or Tokyo. And in seeing things differently, there is a chance they will see a solution that others might miss; a solution that could help the rest of the world.
Science and health research are community efforts, and to optimize our opportunities for success and serendipity, we must open that community as widely as we can. Guiding and supporting people to help themselves ultimately helps us all.

Randall C Willis can be reached at willis@ddn-news.com

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