Life & Science

THE VIRUS QUEST

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Virologist Alexander Kekulé is a specialist in bio-security research. A field that explores how societies can be protected from infectious diseases such as the Ebola virus.

Although Kekulé sees micro-organisms as the last natural enemy to mankind, he argues that the Ebola outbreak could have been mitigated through adequate information and communication. At DLD15 he will talk about lessons learnt from the Ebola crisis, and how the digital world can be part of future solutions in handling virus outbreaks worldwide.

HOW HAS THE DIGITAL AGE CHANGED OUR WAYS OF DEALING WITH A VIRUS OUTBREAK LIKE EBOLA?

Some people might argue that the digital age created an interconnected world, in which the transport of people and the exchange of goods ease the spread of viruses. However, the benefits given in the digital world to combat dangerous infectious diseases by far outweigh the potential risks. Communication for example, is one powerful tool to oppose the virus outbreaks. The Ebola crisis is a perfect example for this. At first the disease was seen merely as a biological problem, but actually the virus only had a chance to spread because people were not informed about it. The medical infrastructure in West Africa is poor, and also global organizations like the WHO did not respond sufficiently. As virologists we knowa lot about the disease, but the key to combat it successfully is communicating this knowledge to the people who are affected by it. At DLD15 I am looking forward to a vivid discussion with the highly skilled and interdisciplinary audience, which might give birth to some new ideas how digital communication and information technology can help people to fight emerging diseases.

CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE FOR THIS KIND OF TECHNOLOGY?

Decentralized diagnostics is an advanced form of dealing with the virus threat. In short time, it will be routine to use an ordinary smart phone with a minute lab interface to assess blood samples. The analysis of blood samples in a decentralized way can help to recognize an outbreak in an early stage. Such grassroot type of high-tech medicine is especially interesting for African countries where many people don’t have access to specialized clinics. On another level, I think that social media channels can become vital for humanitarian emergencies as well. As social media propelled political movements such as the Arab Spring, they might also help individuals to call local and international networks for help if an outbreak occurs. But this mechanism only works on the premise that people are educated about the disease in the first place.

YOU STATED THAT FEAR IS JUST AS CONTAGIOUS AS A VIRUS. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU MEAN BY THAT AND WHY IT’S AN IMPORTANT FACTOR WHEN WE DEAL WITH AN OUTBREAK?

There is an important psychological aspect to virus diseases. At the Madrid airport, a colored individual died of a heart attack in the middle of the main hall, because doctors and paramedics were scared about Ebola. We had similar collateral damages of Ebola everywhere in the world. In the affected West African regions, women giving birth did not receive medical support, because nobody dared to touch them. I’m sure that collateral damages, including economic disruptions, took many more lives than the virus itself. The key to solving this problem is appropriate information.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LESSONS WE LEARNT FROM THE EBOLA CRISIS?

The most effective help came from non-government organizations. Doctors Without Borders, for example, did a brilliant job in West Africa. They were the only ones whoreacted quickly and effectively. Big institutions like the EU, UN, WHO as well as individual nations were slow and not flexible enough to provide help where it was needed. Still to this day, Germany has not been able to set up a functioning Ebola treatment facility. The one

they built in Monrovia was no longer needed once the building was finished. I think this goes to show that we need a much more decentralized approach to combat virus outbreaks. We need a "fractal" structure with small, local and smart units that can spring into action when they’re needed. Basically as a response to viruses we need to set up a structure that behaves like a virus, a viral fractal action plan. A good place to start might be installing an African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. It is hard to believe that, while the US have their Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Europe has the European Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), there is no such institution in Africa, where it is most urgently needed. My proposition is that we help Africa to set up its own "ACDC", perhaps with the support of private funding. This should not be another "elephant" like CDC or WHO, but rather a giant herd of squirrels – nimble, agile and decentralized, and therefore resilient and fast responding. To shape this generation 2.0 battle troop against infectious diseases, the digital world will have to amalgamate with the medical world. At DLD 15, when world-class digital thinkers jump into the virus quest, we might have the melting pot needed to make this idea fly.

Alexander Kekulé will be speaking with at DLD15



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