6 Ways COVID-19 Impacted Biomedical Science, and Vice Versa

June 2, 2021 • Devin Partida

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely the most significant challenge the biomedical industry has faced in the past few decades. Disrupted supply chains, laboratory closures and lockdowns around the world put many research projects on hold.

At the same time, the global effort to develop a vaccine and new treatments for the disease led to significant breakthroughs in the field. These innovations could continue to transform the biomedical science industry well into the future.

This is how COVID-19 impacted the sector, how biomedical researchers responded and the long-term effects the pandemic may have on science.

1. AI-Powered CT Scans

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese radiologists and medical researchers discovered that chest CT scans of patients featured distinct “ground-glass opacities” that they could use to diagnose the disease. CT scans became a valuable diagnostic tool for hospitals treating patients with COVID-19 for the first time.

To help doctors handle the large number of patients needing diagnosis, researchers developed new AI-powered algorithms that could analyze CT scans and detect signs of COVID-19. 

After the pandemic, biomedical scientists and artificial intelligence developers will likely continue to research how AI can improve CT scans and medical imaging analysis in general. Google researchers have already used similar tech to develop a new algorithm for detecting breast cancer in mammograms.

2. mRNA Vaccines

The new interest and investment in messenger RNA vaccines — the technology that made the COVID-19 inoculations possible — is likely to be one of the most significant and long-lasting impacts the pandemic will have on the biomedical industry. Already, biomedical researchers are at work in finding new potential applications for mRNA-based vaccines.

Early evidence suggests that mRNA vaccine technology could help researchers make major breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases like HIV, the Zika virus and cancer. Moderna is investigating personalized cancer vaccines that could treat the disease more effectively than existing therapies.

Similar progress is being made toward an experimental mRNA HIV vaccine. While it hasn’t been tested in humans yet, researchers have seen promising results from early animal studies that may suggest mRNA could be the key to creating an effective treatment.

3. Disruptions to Biomedicine Education

As COVID-19 spread, medical universities began to lock down campuses and send students home. School administrative teams and educators were forced to quickly develop new courses that could be taught over the internet. The move significantly disrupted normal biomedical education.

Around the world, biomedical research was also put on hold as laboratories shut down or limited researcher access to slow the spread of the virus. Supply chain disruptions made essential research supplies difficult to find, and the cancellation of conferences meant the loss of valuable opportunities to network and share research.

Despite these disruptions, there may be a silver lining for biomedical education. One report highlighting student perspectives on medical education during COVID-19 said “students valued the flexibility afforded by remote curricula but desired some weekly structure.” They also appreciated the improved access to educational resources while learning remotely. 

Accessibility in medical education has long been a concern for professors. Experiments with remote education during COVID-19 could encourage educational institutions to become more open to online teaching in the future — potentially providing students with better access to learning.

4. Remote Patient Monitoring Technology

In the early days of the pandemic, hospitals struggled to track patient vitals while minimizing contact between them and hospital staff. To solve this problem, many health care facilities turned to smart technology — like internet-connected patient monitors — to track patients while minimizing the risk of viral transmission. 

These devices could provide medical professionals with real-time updates on patient vitals, allowing them to monitor many different beds from any workstation in the hospital.

Wearable health devices offered similar benefits and allowed doctors to track patient recovery even after leaving the hospital. This reduced the need for follow-up visits. Similar wearables were also used to monitor the health of people who might need hospitalization.

Remote patient monitoring pilot projects like these possibly accelerated IoT and smart technology adoption in the health care industry.

5. New Research on Coronaviruses

The impact of SARS-CoV-2 may have also accelerated research on coronaviruses in general. 

Grants on research topics like the enzymes that coronaviruses use to slip through cell walls may help biomedical researchers develop a deeper understanding of coronaviruses and how new medicine may be able to prevent their spread. 

These discoveries could prove essential during future coronavirus outbreaks and in the control of common human viruses, like those that can cause the common cold.

6. Broad-Spectrum Antivirals

Aside from some success with the drug Remdesivir, researchers have had little success using existing antivirals to treat COVID-19. The pandemic has spurred new research into developing antivirals that biomedical experts hope will help beat COVID-19 — and, potentially, future pandemics.

Already, one team of researchers from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University has developed a new broad-spectrum antiviral drug that “completely suppresses virus transmission [of SARS-CoV-2] within 24 hours.” 

The development of this antiviral drug — and others like it — could be a valuable tool in treating other diseases caused by viruses, like influenza. The renewed interest in antiviral research could also have a similar impact as the new investment in mRNA vaccines. COVID-19 may lead to a surge in new medications.

How COVID-19 Will Have a Lasting Impact on Biomedicine

COVID-19 had a significant and immediate impact on biomedical research — labs were shuttered, research equipment supply chains were disrupted and researchers began working from home. 

However, the pandemic also spurred significant investment in the field. New research into mRNA and antivirals will likely continue to produce results. The development of new mRNA vaccines and broad-spectrum antivirals is already in progress, which bodes well for the future.

Changes to biomedicine education — like new remote learning options — may also help make the field more accessible. All these developments signal positive outcomes from a trying time in our history, showing that perseverance pays off.

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