Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on science and technology

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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many science, space and technology institutions and government agencies worldwide, leading to reduced productivity on a number of fields and programmes. It has also opened several new funding research lines in several governmental agencies around the world.[1][2][3]

Science[edit]

Overview of scholarly publications on COVID-19 and the pandemic during the first three months of 2020

The pandemic may have improved scientific communication or established new forms of it. For instance, a lot of data is being released on preprint servers and is getting dissected on social Internet platforms and sometimes in the media before entering formal peer review. Scientists are reviewing, editing, analysing and publishing manuscripts and data at record speeds and in large numbers.[4] This intense communication may have allowed an unusual level of collaboration and efficiency among scientists.[5] Francis Collins notes that while he hasn't seen research move faster, the pace of research "can still feel slow" during a pandemic. The typical model for research has been considered too slow for the "urgency of the coronavirus threat".[6] A number of factors shape how much and which scientific knowledge can be established timely.[citation needed]

World Health Organization[edit]

On 4 May 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) organised a telethon to raise US$8 billion from forty countries to support rapid development of vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections,[7] also announcing deployment of an international "Solidarity trial" for simultaneous evaluation of several vaccine candidates reaching Phase II-III clinical trials.[8] The "Solidarity trial for treatments" is a multinational Phase III-IV clinical trial organised by the WHO and partners to compare four untested treatments for hospitalised people with severe COVID-19 illness.[9][10] The trial was announced 18 March 2020,[9] and as of 21 April, over 100 countries were participating.[11] The WHO is also coordinating a multiple-site, international randomised controlled trial—the "Solidarity trial for vaccines"[8][12]—to enable simultaneous evaluation of the benefits and risks of different vaccine candidates under clinical trials in countries where there are high rates of COVID-19 disease, ensuring fast interpretation and sharing of results around the world.[8] The WHO vaccine coalition will prioritize which vaccines should go into Phase II and III clinical trials, and determine harmonised Phase III protocols for all vaccines achieving the pivotal trial stage.[8]

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)—which is organising a US$2 billion worldwide fund for rapid investment and development of vaccine candidates[13]—indicated in April that a vaccine may be available under emergency use protocols in less than 12 months or by early 2021.[14]

UNESCO[edit]

The seventh edition of the UNESCO Science Report, which monitors science policy and governance around the world, was under preparation when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Examples from around the world of the ways scientists, inventors and governments acted to harness science to meet societal needs during the early stages of the pandemic are documented in the report. In the essay What the COVID-19 pandemic reveals about the evolving landscape of scientific advice, the authors provide five country case studies from Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Ghana and New Zealand, concluding: 'Effective and trusted scientific advice is not simply a function of linkages with the policy-maker. It also involves an effective conversation with stakeholders and the public.'

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa contributed 13% of new or adapted technologies worldwide, including in fields such as robotics, 3D printing and mobile phone apps, according to the World Health Organization. Many countries have accelerated their approval processes for research project proposals. For example, by early April 2020, the innovation agencies of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay had all launched calls for research with an accelerated approval process. Peru’s two innovation agencies shortened their own response time to two weeks, documented in the UNESCO Science Report (2021).

UNESCO's study of publishing trends among 193 countries on the topic of new or re-emerging viruses that can infect humans covered the time range of 2011 to 2019, now providing a baseline for the status of such research prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Global output on this broad topic progressed by just 2% per year between 2011 and 2019, slower than global scientific publishing overall. Growth was much faster in individual countries which had to marshal science to cope with other viral outbreaks over this period, such as Liberia addressing Ebola or Brazil addressing Zika fever. With this past evidence of science having been re-active, it remains to be seen if the post-COVID-19 scientific landscape shifts to a pro-active approach within health sciences.

National and intergovernmental laboratories[edit]

United States Department of Energy federal scientific laboratories such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have closed all its doors to all visitors and many employees, and non-essential staff and scientists are required to work from home if possible. Contractors also are strongly advised to isolate their facilities and staff unless necessary. The overall operation of the ORNL remains somewhat unaffected.[15]

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been tasked by the White House Coronavirus Task Force to utilize most of its supercomputing capability for further research of the virus stream, possible mutations and other factors; while temporary reducing other projects or delaying them indefinitely.[16]

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory has closed all six sites across Europe (Barcelona, Grenoble, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Hinxton and Rome). All of EMBL's host governments have introduced strict controls in response to the coronavirus. EMBL staff have been instructed to follow local government advice. A small number of staff have been authorised to attend the sites to provide an essential service such as maintenance of animal facilities or data services. All other staff have been instructed to stay at home. EMBL has also cancelled all visits to sites by non-staff groups. This includes physical participation in the Courses and Conferences programme at Heidelberg, the EMBL-EBI Training courses, and all other seminars, courses and public visits at all sites. Meanwhile, the European Bioinformatics Institute is creating a European COVID-19 Data Platform for data/information exchange. The goal is to collect and share rapidly available research data to enable synergies, cross-fertilisation and use of diverse data sets with different degrees of aggregation, validation and/or completeness. The platform is envisaged to consist of two connected components, the SARS-CoV-2 Data Hubs organising the flow of SARS-CoV-2 outbreak sequence data and providing comprehensive open data sharing for the European and global research communities, and one broader COVID-19 Portal.[17][18][19]

World Meteorological Organization[edit]

The World Meteorological Organization expressed concern about the pandemic's effects on their observation system. Observations from the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay programme, which uses in-flight measurements from the fleets of 43 airlines, were reduced by 50% to 80% depending on region. Data from other automated systems was largely unaffected, though the WMO expressed fears that repairs and maintenance may be affected. Manual observations, mostly from developing countries, also saw a significant decrease.[20]

Open science[edit]

The need for accelerating open scientific research made several civil society organisations to create an Open COVID Pledge[21][22] asking to different industries to release their intellectual property rights during the pandemic to help find a cure for the disease. Several tech giants joined the pledge.[23] The pledge includes the release of an Open COVID license.[24] Organisations that have been longtime advocates for Open Access, such as Creative Commons, implemented a myriad of calls and actions to promote open access in science as a key element to combat the disease.[25][26] These include a public call for more open access policies,[27] and a call to scientists to adopt zero embargo periods for their publications, implementing a CC BY to their articles, and a CC0 waiver for the research data.[28] Other organisations questioned the current scientific culture, making a call for more open, public science.[29]

For coronavirus studies and information that can help enable citizen science through open science, many more online resources are available through other open access and open science websites, including portals run by the Cambridge University Press,[30] the Europe branch of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition,[31] The Lancet,[32] John Wiley and Sons,[33] and Springer Nature.[34]

Medical research[edit]

One study from JAMA Network Open looked at trends in oncology clinical trials launched before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that "compared with the prepandemic period, the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with a 60% decrease in the number of launches of oncology clinical trials of drugs and biologic therapies for 1 global commercial clinical trial platform."[35]

Computing and machine learning research and citizen science[edit]

In March 2020, the United States Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, NASA, industry, and nine universities pooled resources to access supercomputers from IBM, combined with cloud computing resources from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, for drug discovery.[36][37] The COVID‑19 High Performance Computing Consortium also aims to forecast disease spread, model possible vaccines, and screen thousands of chemical compounds to design a COVID‑19 vaccine or therapy.[36][37]

The C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute, an additional consortium of Microsoft, six universities (including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a member of the first consortium), and the National Center for Supercomputer Applications in Illinois, working under the auspices of C3.ai, a company founded by Thomas Siebel, are pooling supercomputer resources toward drug discovery, medical protocol development and public health strategy improvement, as well as awarding large grants to researchers who proposed by May to use AI to carry out similar tasks.[38][39]

In March 2020, the distributed computing project Folding@home launched a program to assist medical researchers around the world. The initial wave of projects are meant to simulate potential protein targets from SARS-CoV-2, and the related SARS-CoV virus, which has been studied previously.[40][41][42]

Distributed computing project Rosetta@home also joined the effort in March. The project uses computers of volunteers to model SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins to discover possible drug targets or create new proteins to neutralize the virus. Researchers revealed that with the help of Rosetta@home, they had been able to “accurately predict the atomic-scale structure of an important coronavirus protein weeks before it could be measured in the lab.”[43]

In May 2020, the OpenPandemics—COVID-19 partnership between Scripps Research and IBM's World Community Grid was launched. The partnership is a distributed computing project that "will automatically run a simulated experiment in the background [of connected home PCs] which will help predict the effectiveness of a particular chemical compound as a possible treatment for COVID-19".[44]

Resources for computer science and scientific crowdsourcing projects concerning COVID-19 can be found on the internet or as apps.[45][46][47] Some examples of such projects are listed below:

  • The Eterna OpenVaccine project enables video game players to "design an mRNA encoding a potential vaccine against the novel coronavirus."[48]
  • The EU-Citizen.Science project has "a selection of resources related to the current COVID19 pandemic. It contains links to citizen science and crowdsourcing projects"[49]
  • The COVID-19 Citizen Science project is "a new initiative by University of California, San Francisco physician-scientists" that "will allow anyone in the world age 18 or over to become a citizen scientist advancing understanding of the disease."[50]
  • The CoronaReport digital journalism project is "a citizen science project which democratizes the reporting on the Coronavirus, and makes these reports accessible to other citizens."[51][52]
  • The COVID Symptom Tracker is a crowdsourced study of the symptoms of the virus. It has had two million downloads by April 2020.[53][54]
  • The Covid Near You epidemiology tool "uses crowdsourced data to visualise maps to help citizens and public health agencies identify current and potential hotspots for the recent pandemic coronavirus, COVID-19."[55]

The scientific community held several machine learning competitions to identify fake information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some examples are listed below:

  • The First Workshop on Combating Online Hostile Posts in Regional Languages during Emergency Situation,[56] collocated with the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence conference (AAAI-2021), focused on the detection of COVID-19-related fake news in English. The sources of data were various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Given a social media post, the objective of the shared task was to classify it into either fake or real news. The winner of the task[57] presented an ensemble approach based on COVID-Twitter-BERT[58] models' finetuning.
  • The Sixth Workshop on Noisy User-generated Text: Identification of Informative COVID-19 English Tweets,[59] aimed to automatically identify whether a COVID-19-related tweet in English is informative or not. The organizers provided the research community with a new dataset of tweets for identification. The selection of tweets included information about suspected, confirmed, recovered, and death cases as well as the location or travel history of the cases. The winning solution[60] in the workshop's task presented a neural network ensemble of COVID-Twitter-BERT and RoBERTa language models.

Space[edit]

NASA[edit]

The James Webb Space Telescope's launch has been delayed to Oct 31, 2021
Components of the Space Launch System

NASA announced the temporary closure of all its field centre visitor complexes until further notice, as well as required all non-critical personnel to work from home if possible. Production and manufacture of the Space Launch System at the Michoud Assembly Facility was stopped,[61][62] and further delays to the James Webb Space Telescope are expected,[63] though as of 3 June 2020 work has resumed.[64]

The majority of personnel at the Johnson Space Center transitioned to teleworking, and International Space Station mission critical personnel were instructed to reside in the mission control room until further notice. Station operations are relatively unaffected, but new expedition astronauts face longer and stricter quarantines before flight.[65]

NASA's emergency response framework has varied depending on local virus cases around its agency field centres. As of 24 March 2020, the following space centres had been escalated to stage 4:[citation needed]

Two facilities were held at stage 4 after reporting new coronavirus cases: the Michoud Assembly Facility reporting its first employee testing positive for COVID-19, and the Stennis Space Center recording a second case of a member of the NASA community with the virus. The Kennedy Space Center was held at stage 3, after one member of the workforce tested positive. Due to mandatory telework policy already in effect, the individual had not been on site for over a week prior to symptoms.[citation needed] On May 18, the Michoud facility began to resume SLS work operations, but so far remains in a state of level 3.[66]

At stage 4, mandatory telework is in effect for all personnel, with the exception of limited personnel required for mission-essential work and to care-take and maintain the safety and security of the facility.[67]

ESA[edit]

The European Space Agency has ordered many of its science and technology facilities' workforce to also telework as much as possible.

Recent developments, including strengthened restrictions by national, regional and local authorities across Europe and the first positive test result for COVID-19 within the workforce at the European Space Operations Centre, have led the agency to restrict on-site personnel at its mission control centres even further.

ESA's Director of Operations - Rolf Densing, has strongly recommended mission personnel to reduce activity of scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft.

The affected spacecraft are currently in stable orbits and long mission durations, so turning off their science instruments and placing them into a largely unattended safe configuration for a certain period will have a negligible impact on their overall mission performance.

Among the affected missions are:

  • Cluster – A four-spacecraft mission launched in 2000, orbiting Earth to investigate our planet's magnetic environment and how it is forged by the solar wind, the stream of charged particles constantly released by the Sun;
  • ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter – Launched in 2016, the spacecraft is in orbit around Mars, where it has been investigating the planet's atmosphere and providing data relay for landers on the surface;
  • Mars Express – Launched in 2003, the workhorse orbiter has been imaging the Martian surface and sampling the planet's atmosphere for over one and a half decades;
  • Solar Orbiter – ESA's newest science mission, launched in February 2020 and currently en route to its science operations orbit around the Sun.

ESA's Director of Science - Günther Hasinger, commented: "It was a difficult decision, but the right one to take. Our greatest responsibility is the safety of people, and I know all of us in the science community understand why this is necessary".

The temporary reduction in personnel on site will also allow the ESOC teams to concentrate on maintaining spacecraft safety for all other missions involved, in particular, the Mercury explorer BepiColombo, which is on its way to the innermost planet in the Solar System and will require some on-site support around its scheduled Earth flyby on 10 April.

The challenging manoeuvre, which will use Earth's gravity to adjust BepiColombo's trajectory as it cruises towards Mercury, will be performed by a very small number of engineers and in full respect of social distancing and other health and hygiene measures required by the current situation. Commissioning and first check-out operations of scientific instruments on the recently launched Solar Orbiter, which had begun last month, have been temporarily suspended.

ESA expects to resume these operations in the near future, in line with the development of the coronavirus situation. Meanwhile, Solar Orbiter will continue its journey towards the Sun, with the first Venus flyby to take place in December.[68]

JAXA[edit]

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) space and science operations largely remain unaffected. However all visitors to their numerous field centres were suspended until April 30, 2020 to reduce contamination.[69][70]

Commercial aerospace[edit]

Bigelow Aerospace announced on 23 March 2020, that it was laying off all 88 of its employees. It has said it would hire workers back when restrictions imposed by the pandemic are lifted.[71] World View based in Tucson, Arizona announced on 17 April 2020 that it had halted new business initiatives and furloughed an unstated number of employee in order to reduce cash outflow. The company had also received rent deferments from Pima County, Arizona.[72]

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy on 27 March 2020, following a cash crunch amidst difficulties raising capital to complete the build and deployment of the remaining 90% of the network. The company had already laid off approximately 85% of its 531 employees, but said it will maintain satellite operational capabilities while the court restructures it and new owners for the constellation are sought.[73][74]

Rocket Lab temporarily closed its New Zealand launch site but operations continue at its Wallops Flight Facility launch complex.[75]

Larger companies such as SpaceX and Boeing remain somewhat economically unaffected, apart from extra safety precautions and measures for their employees to limit the spread of the virus in their workplaces. As of April 16, Blue Origin stated that it was continuing with its hiring of staff, growing by around 20 each week.[76] ULA implemented an internal pandemic plan. Whilst some aspects of launch related outreach were scaled back, the company made clear the intention to maintain its launch schedule.[77]

Telecommunications[edit]

The coronavirus caused a huge strain on internet traffic, with an increase of 60% and 50% in broadband usage of BT Group and Vodafone, respectively. In the meantime, Netflix, Disney+, Google, Amazon and YouTube considered the notion to reduce their video quality to prevent the overload. Meanwhile, Sony started slowing down PlayStation game downloads in Europe and the United States to maintain the traffic level.[78][79]

Cellular service providers in mainland China have reported significant drops in subscriber numbers, partially due to migrant workers being unable to return to work as a result of quarantine lockdowns; China Mobile saw a reduction of 8 million subscribers, while China Unicom had 7.8 million fewer subscribers, and China Telecom lost 5.6 million users.[80]

Teleconferencing has served as a replacement for cancelled events as well as daily business meetings and social contacts. Teleconference companies such as Zoom Video Communications have seen a sharp increase in usage, accompanied by attendant technical problems like bandwidth overcrowding and social problems like Zoombombing.[81][82][83]

Virtual happy hours for "quarantinis" (mixed drinks) have been held using the technology,[84] and even virtual dance parties.[85]

See also[edit]

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