Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on science and technology
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 programs. It has also opened several new funding research lines in several governmental agencies around the world.
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, analyzing and publishing manuscripts and data at record speeds and in large numbers. This intense communication may have allowed an unusual level of collaboration and efficiency among scientists. 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". A number of factors shape how much and which scientific knowledge can be established timely.
World Health OrganizationEdit
On 4 May 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) organized a telethon to raise US$8 billion from forty countries to support rapid development of vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections, also announcing deployment of an international "Solidarity trial" for simultaneous evaluation of several vaccine candidates reaching Phase II-III clinical trials. The "Solidarity trial for treatments" is a multinational Phase III-IV clinical trial organized by the WHO and partners to compare four untested treatments for hospitalized people with severe COVID-19 illness. The trial was announced 18 March 2020, and as of 21 April, over 100 countries were participating. The WHO is also coordinating a multiple-site, international randomized controlled trial – the "Solidarity trial for vaccines" – 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. The WHO vaccine coalition will prioritize which vaccines should go into Phase II and III clinical trials, and determine harmonized Phase III protocols for all vaccines achieving the pivotal trial stage.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – which is organizing a US$2 billion worldwide fund for rapid investment and development of vaccine candidates – indicated in April that a vaccine may be available under emergency use protocols in less than 12 months or by early 2021.
National and intergovernmental laboratoriesEdit
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.
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.
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 authorized 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.
The World Meteorological Organization expressed concern about the 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.
The need for accelerating open scientific research made several civil society organizations to create an Open COVID Pledge 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. The pledge includes the release of an Open COVID license. Organizations 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. These include a public call for more open access policies, 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. Other organizations questioned the current scientific culture, making a call for more open, public science.
Computing research and citizen scienceEdit
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. The COVID‑19 High Performance Computing Consortium is also being used to forecast disease spread, model possible vaccines, and screen thousands of chemical compounds to design a COVID‑19 vaccine or therapy.
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 propose to use AI to carry out similar tasks by May.
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 potentially protein targets from SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the related SARS-CoV virus, which has been studied previously.
- The Eterna OpenVaccine project enables video game players to "design an mRNA encoding a potential vaccine against the novel coronavirus."
- 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"
- 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."
- 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."
- The COVID Symptom Tracker is a crowdsourced study of the symptoms of the virus. It has had two million downloads by April 2020.
- The Covid Near You epidemiology tool "uses crowdsourced data to visualize maps to help citizens and public health agencies identify current and potential hotspots for the recent pandemic coronavirus, COVID-19."
NASA announced the temporary closure of all its field center visitor complexes until further notice, as well as requiring 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, and further delays to the James Webb Space Telescope are expected.
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.
NASA's emergency response framework has varied depending on local virus cases around its agency field centers. As of March 24, 2020, the following space centers had been escalated to stage 4:
- Glenn Research Center in Ohio
- Plum Brook Station in Ohio
- Armstrong Flight Research Center in California
- Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia
- Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York
- Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who also reported its first case of an employee testing positive for COVID-19.
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. On May 18, the Michoud facility began to resume SLS work operations, but so far remains in a state of level 3.
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.
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.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) space and science operations largely remain unaffected. However all visitors to their numerous field centers have been suspended until April 30 to reduce contamination.
Bigelow Aerospace announced on March 23, 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. World View based in Tucson, Arizona announced on April 17, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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