Politics & Society

Grassroots Tech Offers Hope in the Age of Coronavirus

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, more than 500 million people worldwide were infected with the virus and around 675,000 people died in the United States. More than a century later, we are in the middle of another pandemic that has already infected 4.2 million people worldwide, killed over 80,000 Americans in less than 3 months, and resulted in disastrous unemployment for tens of millions of Americans. Pandemics shake world economies, destroy hope and alter the social fabric and norms of nations.

This time, however, we have an advantage that our 1918 predecessors did not. More than half a century of public and private investment in science and technology has led to breakthrough innovation by some of the brightest minds in America. The contrast is stark – we have smartphones in our pockets with a million times more processing power than the Apollo 11 computer, pacemakers in our hearts smaller than a quarter able to wirelessly and securely transfer heartbeat information to healthcare professionals, and smart thermometers that can quickly detect outbreaks. We can sequence a new viral genome in days, bio-engineer antibodies, computationally design and screen new medicines, and apply real-time epidemiology data in complex mathematical models to guide public health decision-making.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 we have also seen another vital ingredient emerge within the normally sterile landscape of science, data and laboratories. Researchers and scientists, at a grassroots level, are bringing the can-do American spirit and a rugged ingenuity to discovering life-saving solutions. Dr. Helen Chu, UW Professor of Medicine, and her colleagues identified the need for coronavirus testing in February in early recognition of this threat, while highlighting deficiencies in the federal regulatory process for pandemic response. The team at UW virology defied the odds and ramped up their testing capability from 30 tests per day to 2857 tests per day in just 16 days. Engineers and tech-savvy individuals used 3D printing to design and manufacture 3D printed face shields and even the first DIY disposable gown to address the serious lack of PPE supplies.

As we await the arrival of approved safe-and-effective treatments and a vaccine, aggressive testing and contact tracing will be critical tools needed to flatten the new cases curve, minimize disease resurgence and reopen the Washington State economy. Technology and technologists are playing a key role in this effort with the development of smartphone applications that identify symptoms, enable app-assisted contact tracing, and expand tele-medicine. Yet, as we recently learned from broad stakeholder discussions on Senate bill SB 6281, robust data privacy protection deserves vital attention and scrutiny when considering tech solutions during and beyond an immediate public health crisis. Grassroots tech, in contrast to big tech, can build public trust by driving privacy-focused development of these measures, and safely revive our economy.

Society may rush to embrace new digital tools to restore normal life activities, but legislators and developers must not also exacerbate inequities that exist today. For example, we can ensure these technologies will run on older, less expensive smartphones so we don’t leave people behind, and expanding broadband access to underserved areas takes on a new urgency.

COVID-19 attacks the very connections that build society by fueling helplessness and isolation in our world. Technology and medical pioneers can help us fight back by amplifying hope for defeating this virus. If we work together, tools that were unavailable in 1918 can help us mobilize our vision for a COVID-19-free future, and for societal good.

*Dr. Vandana Slatter, a clinical pharmacist, is a Washington State Representative for the 48th Legislative District, which includes parts of Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland and all of Clyde Hill, Medina, Yarrow Point and Hunts Point. She co-chairs the Science, Innovation and Technology (ScITech) Caucus, and is a member of the Innovation, Technology and Economic Development Committee.

Dr. Shyam Gollakota is an associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. Dr. Gollakota works on designing mobile technology for healthcare.*

ABOUT Washington state, one of the United States’ tech meccas—home to the likes of Amazon and Microsoft—became an early hot spot during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. The spread of the virus there forced state lawmakers to think swiftly and creatively about how to respond.

Vandana Slatter, a Washington State Representative and 2019 Congressional European Parliamentary Initiative (CEPI) fellow, shares her thoughts on COVID-19. Dr. Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, joins her in recommending how to mobilize a vision for a world free of COVID-19.


Washington State Representative Vandana Slatter (CEPI ’19) and Dr. Shyam Gollakota