I recently read a piece in the New Yorker on how pandemics wreak havoc – and open minds. The plague, named the Black Death for the outbreak that arrived in Italy in 1347, spreading across Europe and peaking 1347-1351, brought about an economic and demographic collapse. At the same time, historians argue that it marked the end of the Middle Ages and the start of a great cultural renewal, including a revival of medical science.
Thanks to modern medicine we are fortunate to have a different ability to confront the present pandemic – the wealth of personal, societal, and economic challenges notwithstanding. Yet this got me thinking… if a plague seven centuries ago effectively revived medical science, what kind of long-term impact might the present pandemic have?
I particularly enjoyed reading the below interview (McKinsey - Microsoft). Recent breakthroughs in biological science have begun to intersect with continuing advances in computing and AI technologies – termed here a "Bio Revolution". It is this Bio Revolution, for example, which has allowed our response to the current pandemic to be much faster even than our response to the global SARS outbreak, another type of coronavirus, which occurred a mere 17 years ago.
The opportunities presented by this revolution are vast. In response to the present pandemic, AI can be used to optimally route blood plasma containing antibodies for COVID-19 to end users that need them to recover. More generally, AI is going to have a huge impact in medicine development as machine-learning models accelerate the R&D process and allow us to tackle conditions which, without AI input, are difficult (or to date impossible?) to treat. In fact, AI and the resulting tech will even democratize access to high-quality healthcare which at present remains too expensive for many across the world.
However, the Bio Revolution will not stop there: it will impact other sectors beyond healthcare. It is estimated that up to 60 per cent of the physical inputs into the economy are "either biological or could be created in a biologically influenced way". For example, biologists can now reprogram yeast to build products used to substitute parts of the petrochemical industry. And then there's the ability to use biological technologies to tackle climate change.
It's not hard to comprehend the enormous potential of this Bio Revolution. As we continue to confront the present pandemic, it may be the sense of urgency, collectively felt, which may ultimately act as "the spark that lights the innovation fire" for this Bio Revolution to take off. So, this time not a revival, but a revolution of medical science - and much more on top. I, for one, am curious to see where this will take us.
Please note this blog post was written by a Clifford Chance LLP employee. Clifford Chance LLP is the parent company of Clifford Chance Applied Solutions (CCAS). The content within this post does not constitute legal advice.
It’s entirely conceivable to me that the next seven or eight decades of our existence as a human race might be defined by this set of technologies that are rooted in the biological sciences. And the accelerator, the spark that lights the innovation fire that hopefully happens, is this pandemic.