WIRED Health:Tech 2020: Latest advances and the fight against COVID-19
Written by Maria Cohut, Ph.D. on November 3, 2020 — Fact checked by Matt Ng
WIRED Health:Tech is one of the most prominent annual conferences exploring technological advances in medicine. This year, the main topics included artificial intelligence, remote surgical systems, and the ongoing fight against COVID-19.
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This year’s WIRED Health:Tech conference took place online last month, in an effort to adapt to the challenges posed by the current pandemic.
A range of specialists held presentations about the latest advances in medical technology, including remote surgical systems, e-health, CRISPR technology, and the issue on everyone’s mind this year: how research can combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this Special Feature, we offer an overview of the panels and main takeaways from the presentations.
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How does the world feel about vaccines?
Throughout many of the WIRED Health:Tech presentations, the recurring theme was how technology is helping — or hindering — the fight against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that has given rise to the current pandemic.
Prof. Heidi Larson — from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom — spoke of the global response to vaccines, an issue of paramount importance in the context of the pandemic.
Prof. Larson noted that according to her and her colleagues’ research — which appears in The Lancet — “people’s feelings about vaccines have become far more volatile.”
“It’s a lot more like political opinion polling. They used to be much more stable 10–20 years ago. You knew who agreed and who was less confident around vaccines, but that’s changing very frequently,” she observed.
However, she did offer some positive news:
“The overall picture is that […] there is a general trend where people are becoming a little more confident [about vaccines] than they were 5 years ago.”
According to Prof. Larson, this may be because public health specialists and communicators are more proactive in dismantling pervasive myths about vaccination over the past few years.
Nevertheless, she cautioned, “we do see that Europe remains the lowest in confidence, the most skeptical, with countries like Lithuania [where] only 19% strongly believe that vaccines are safe. The highest [rate] is [in] Finland, at 66% — and that’s just ‘strongly believe.’”
“Poland had the most significant drop in confidence in vaccines,” she noted.
She also emphasized these fluctuations in confidence in vaccines across the globe occurred before the pandemic. In the current situation, Prof. Larson said, sentiments surrounding vaccinations have become even more volatile.
“Because of the hyper-uncertainty and the whole environment of trust and distrust around the COVID vaccine, there are groups that have gotten together to resist even the COVID vaccine,” she warned.
The danger of anti-vaccination mentalities can only be mitigated by giving science more of a “human face,” Prof Larson argued:
“We need to bring together the scientific, technological advances that are so valuable, and not lose the human face, but bring that back together [with the scientific perspective]. This isn’t just a misinformation problem. This is a relationship problem. This is a cultural revolution, saying ‘we need to change, we need to get back to a more human face in the scientific and medical field.’”