It’s been just over a year since COVID-19 was labeled a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), after earlier doubts about its transmission potential. Since then, the disease has become one of the 10 deadliest in recorded history.
Throughout the course of the year, researchers quickly adapted existing technologies to new purposes in response to discoveries made about COVID-19’s genome, transmission, and variants.
These technologies have facilitated governmental defense responses to the virus, including early detection, contact tracing, and COVID-19 surveillance.
Below are the major COVID-19 scientific discoveries and the technology trends that facilitated and emerged from them.
January 7, 2020
Novel coronavirus identified
Chinese researchers identified a new type of coronavirus as the cause of a mysterious pneumonia-like disease affecting patients in Wuhan hospitals. They genetically sequenced the virus using a patient sample and subsequently found it to be responsible for the illness of dozens of others.
Tech trend: Sequencing a genome once took more than a decade. Because of advances in computational speed, researchers were able to recognize the virus as a coronavirus within weeks of the first-identified cases of ‘pneumonia of unknown cause.’
January 12, 2020
China’s National Health Commission shared the novel coronavirus’s entire genetic sequence with the World Health Organization (WHO), whereupon it was uploaded to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID). With close to 30,000 base pairs, the genome is considered large.
The gene sequence and its functional implications: “Genetics of COVID-19”
Tech trend: As countries experienced a large influx in cases, supercomputers and big data allowed researchers to analyze the genetic sequences of COVID-19 patients and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) mutations at population scale.
January 16, 2020
Diagnostic reagents optimized
BGI Genomics developed the first diagnostic testing kit, which uses relevant reagents to detect the presence of COVID-19 infections. Because SARS-CoV-2’s genetic sequence was made globally available, a number of companies and researchers were able to develop testing kits in a matter of weeks.
Types of COVID-19 diagnostic tests and how they work: Assay Techniques and Test Development for COVID-19
Tech trends: As countries experienced a shortage of testing kits, traditional detection methods (like manually testing for the virus and its symptoms) gave way to large-scale digital methods, employing thermal cameras, digital thermometers, and artificial intelligence. Although they have the potential to breach some countries’ data privacy laws, they effectively scaled up from one-off testing kits.
January 30, 2020
Person-to-person transmission confirmed
Earlier reports that the virus does not spread readily through humans proved inaccurate. At this point, the virus had entered 22 known countries, many of whose citizens had had zero travel to Wuhan, thereby confirming person-to-person transmission.
Tech trend: As community spread became common, contact tracing technologies used artificially intelligent facial recognition algorithms to track citizens’ movements in countries like South Korea. Other countries used existing technologies, like Bluetooth and smartwatches, to track citizens movements and intersections, then synthesizing that information into maps.
February 19, 2020
‘Spike’ protein mapped
Researchers mapped the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2’s ‘spike’ protein (identified as early as January 21), which allows the virus to bind to and invade human cells.
Tech trend: This genetic information became the focus for many COVID-19 mRNA vaccine researchers, ushering in the ‘era of RNA vaccines.’ The mRNA vaccine type fast-tracks research and development by requiring significantly less data be sent to human cells (compared to traditional vaccines). Despite being three decades old, the vaccine type had never previously made it out of clinical trials.
October 5, 2020
Airborne transmission termed possible
Since COVID-19 first appeared, airborne transmission had been a topic of controversy; but, by this time, the CDC had collated enough evidence to report on their webpage that airborne transmission is possible under certain conditions.
How airborne disease transmission works: “The Experiment that Proved Airborne Disease Transmission”
Tech trend: Amidst waves of outbreaks, governments used big data and artificial intelligence technologies to predict transmission in their communities and across their borders. The data was digitally collected in real time from sources like mobile phones, mobile payment applications, and social media platforms.
December 2, 2020
Vaccine first authorized
The UK’s authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine marked two historic firsts: the first international approval of a COVID-19 vaccine and the world’s first non-trial approval of an mRNA vaccine.
Effectiveness and application of COVID-19 drugs and treatments: “Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker”
Tech trend: COVID-19 drug researchers turned out vaccines at unprecedented speeds using recent increases in computational power to rapidly sequence genes from hundreds of clinical samples. Reports estimate the usual time in getting a new vaccine to the public is five to 10 years. Less than 12 months after the initial identification of COVID-19, one vaccine found approval and others entered stage three clinical trial evaluations.
December 2020–January 2021
Common variants produced global concern
Of the emerging variants, the U.K.’s B.1.1.7, Brazil’s P.1, and South Africa’s B.1.351 generated the most global concern because of their pervasiveness, which suggests a survival-enhancing adaptation, such as a mutation which allows the virus to easily infect human cells.
Tech trend: Researchers used supercomputers to determine the sequences of variants’ genomes — analysis that generates terabytes to petabytes of data and is essential in global mutation surveillance and vaccine efficacy assessments.