8 July 2020

75 for UN75: A Conversation on Rethinking Health

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and as part of its 75th anniversary initiative (UN75), United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) is hosting the "75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation" series of online dialogues with academics, educators, researchers and students around the world, to discuss their priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global cooperation in managing global issues. On 8 July 2020 UNAI hosted a webinar on the theme “Rethinking Health” as part of this series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of society, crippling health systems and the world economy, with a disproportionate impact on the poor and vulnerable in our communities. Globally, over 11 million cases and more than 500,000 deaths have been reported. The world has not witnessed a pandemic of such magnitude since the Spanish Influenza in 1918.

No country can overcome this pandemic alone. Its ripple effects have been complex and widespread, demanding global solidarity and partnerships to build back better. On 8 July, United Nations Academic Impact hosted a webinar titled “75 Minutes of Conversation: Rethinking Health”, to draw on the expertise of academia and explore how innovation and research can contribute to the ongoing efforts to fight this deadly virus.

The webinar was opened with a video message from Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, United States. Dr. Fauci introduced the zoonotic genesis of COVID-19, pointing out that today’s pandemic is the third coronavirus outbreak in history, following the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) ten years after that. He noted that due to differences in patients and some unknown traits of the virus, the coronavirus can present a wide range of health challenges which complicate efforts to control the outbreak. “I have been chasing viruses and outbreaks for about forty years and I have never seen a single pathogen that has such a wide range of almost contradictory manifestations.”

Dr. Fauci went on to present the different types of tests for virus detection and therapeutics. A living document on the National Institutes of Health website provides treatment guidelines for COVID-19 and includes real-time clinical guidelines as they are released from clinical studies. Vaccines remain critical in containing the spread of the virus. “A strategic approach has been adopted for the vaccine research and development,” said Dr. Fauci, adding that several vaccine candidates have been collected and are currently undergoing clinical trials with promising data. According to Dr. Fauci, coronaviruses are likely to continue to emerge. “We need global collaboration and transparency if we are to get a containment of this extraordinary assault on the human population - a viral disease that spreads rapidly and has a high degree of mobility,” he concluded.

Dr. Christoph Meinel, President and CEO of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) for Digital Engineering in Potsdam, Germany, described the digital educational activities conducted by German universities since the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the faculty of HPI is experienced with digital teaching, with schools closed “it is more of a problem for students who have to sit in front of their laptops all day without any social interaction with their classmates.” For the upcoming fall semester HPI has adopted a hybrid teaching and learning system in line with social distancing and hygiene guidelines and utilizing the massive open online course (MOOC) platform and social media tools. Dr. Meinel also highlighted HPI’s collaboration with WHO and the Mt. Sinai hospital in New York using technology to advance healthcare. “As digital engineers, we support our society and the health system to manage this very complicated situation. We have to manage this crisis together,” commented Dr. Meinel.

The next speaker, Dr. Lamiaa Mohsen, Dean of the School of Medicine of New Giza University in Cairo, Egypt (UNAI SDG Hub for Goal 3), talked about how the university rapidly assessed and responded to the COVID-19 situation and switched to new ways of teaching. The university is using the electronic platform Moodle, and they have adjusted their approach based on student feedback about their experience thus far. The faculty continued to explore how to successfully deliver virtual classes through live interactive sessions. Dr. Mohsen discussed the challenges of organizing exams, which involve social distancing, mask wearing and temperature checks for students, and making it possible for those who cannot take the exams on campus to complete them from home. “We need to have a plan of sustainability,” said Dr. Mohsen as the university prepares for the next semester. Despite the interruptions to their daily lives, New Giza students have been working enthusiastically to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, through initiatives such as fundraising for the Egyptian Food Bank and awareness-raising through educational materials such as posters they designed. The university, in collaboration with Southwestern University in Texas, also submitted a grant proposal to the Science and Technology Development Fund to conduct further research on tackling COVID-19.

Dr. Daniel A. Wubah, President of Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that the Millersville University “had to adopt new ways of doing things overnight.” With the safety of the faculty, students and the surrounding community being the highest priority, a series of measures have been implemented to adapt to the challenges, such as upgrading classrooms, increased cleaning and disinfecting that meet CDC guidelines, and the launch of a contact tracing app on campus. Dr. Wubah shared how different universities are contributing to understanding the pandemic and the response strategies. For example, John Hopkins University is using a university-based computer model to map out the spread of the virus and keep track of the pandemic nationally and globally, to provide decision makers with data that helps them evaluate critical trends, while Millersville University is developing planning and mitigation guidance to support national and state response strategies. In addition, the University of Pittsburg’s Center for Vaccine Research and MIT Innovation Initiative have developed a “COVID-19 Rapid Innovation Dashboard” that provides information on how the pathogen is spreading. According to Dr. Wubah, these examples demonstrate the power of practical application of knowledge for addressing this pandemic: “Through the public and private partnerships and collaborations among the global scientific community, we recognize the magnitude of this pandemic and higher education will continue to contribute towards addressing the impact of the pandemic.”

Dr. Padmini Murthy, Professor and Global Health Director, New York Medical College, New York, highlighted the importance of wearing masks. “COVID-19 has not got tired of infecting us,” she said, noting that “wearing a mask is respect, solidarity and a public health measure.” Dr. Murthy also stressed that the impact of COVID-19 on mental health will have long-term consequences for families, communities and societies, especially the mental stress that health care professionals have been experiencing. She suggested reducing the exposure to news and keeping in touch with others using technology to address the mental health challenges.

During the Q & A session, participants engaged the speakers on a range of issues such as lessons learned from the cooperation between universities and hospitals, the use of technology for contact tracing, potential mutation of the coronavirus, and protective measures by universities with ongoing transitions in learning platforms.

To watch the video with the recording of this UN75 online dialogue click here.

Additional resources:

Message from Dr. Anthony S. Fauci

Message from Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for the UN75 Online Dialogue "75 for UN75: Rethinking Health"