Science, Technology and Innovation Must Respond to the Global Need to End the COVID-19 Pandemic: APRCEM Statement

Statement of the APRCEM S&T Constituency on COVID-19.

The world is presently facing a global health pandemic as many countries battle the widespread transmission of COVID-19 that has already cost the lives of almost 42,000 and afflicted nearly 858,000 people. The healthcare community across nations is engaged in desperate attempts to save lives and stem this crisis, even while becoming highly vulnerable through continuous exposure to the dreaded infection. Developed countries such as the US, Italy, France and Spain are experiencing an unprecedented health crisis as their national death toll increases on account of the pandemic. Developing countries are the most heavily burdened, given their limited public health infrastructure and lack of economic capacity. The pandemic has also posed a challenge to their ability to provide the necessary social protection and other forms of state support that can help the poor and vulnerable cope with this situation.

Science, technology and innovation have played an important role in addressing this health crisis. But the global paradigm defined by a neoliberal economic order has seen the benefits of science and technology put to the service of profits for decades. The emergence of COVID-19 is a direct consequence of anti-people approaches to science and technology rooted in an unfair patent regime, evisceration of investments in public health, and the expansion of unregulated new frontiers that put people and planet in peril.

In an interconnected world, technological strides in the digital-data domain, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), have only contributed to rising global inequality. The digital revolution has also spawned a global class of elite who have deployed technology for consolidating corporate power.

The crisis has revealed the weak links in the current economic order that has impeded the ability of nations to address mitigation strategies collectively and cooperatively. A glaring example is the patent based drug regime that allows corporations complete control over lifesaving treatment. Gilead, which holds the primary patents over Remdesivir, a potentially key treatment for COVID-19 in over 70 countries, did bow to public pressure by rescinding its monopoly marketing rights under the Orphan Drugs Act in US jurisdiction. But, the pharma company continues to hold proprietary control over the drug.

An increasingly unequal world has also witnessed the curtailment of civil and democratic rights with the implementation of total lock down and curfews in order to address the widespread transmission of the disease.

Big Tech companies have jumped into the fray, seeing a business opportunity in the current context, announcing that they will develop new apps for self-screening. This will only help them further amass data capital at the cost of privacy. From drones that monitor people in cities to Facial Recognition Technologies that can see through helmets, wristbands that trace the movement of those home-quarantined and AI based video analytics that capture number plates of vehicles to monitor mobility, national authorities have deployed surveillance technology, violating by a huge margin, the necessity, proportionality and legality tests needed to track citizens.

Given the absence of personal data protection laws in many countries, how these databases will be used for future surveillance is anybody's guess. The slippage of legitimate public intervention to a ​ de facto ​ framework of securitisation and centralised control through technologies drives a huge schism in public trust and social solidarity.

The COVID-19 outbreak is but a reflection of a science and technology paradigm that has had little regard for social ethics and human well being. Today, zoonotic epidemics have become the new normal, an indicator of a climate emergency born from capitalist greed that has destroyed habitats and natural ecosystems. The marriage of genetic and AI technologies, and the datafication of soil, forests and oceans by powerful Big Tech today bodes great risks for the future of human civilization. The
pursuit of such research - in gene editing, for example - is carried out in utmost secrecy, without any public disclosure about potential harms. Proliferation of sequence data in publicly accessible databases has hindered the tracing of utilisation and benefit sharing.

As the world reels from the impact of Covid-19 and there is a race against time to find an urgent solution to this global health crisis, developing countries could emerge as hotspots with large disease burdens and deaths​ . This is particularly true for the Asia Pacific which has the largest number of poor people in the world. The marginalised in this region have borne the brunt not only of natural disasters but also waves of crises triggered by an economic paradigm gone wrong. The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving a wake of destruction of yet another wave - with imminent loss of life and livelihoods, increasing unemployment and worsening hunger and poverty.

We have been confronting COVID-19 based on our respective national capacities, but there is also a growing recognition of the need for a global vision and an international framework that envisions economic stability and environmental sustainability, the public provisioning of basic goods and services, and the recognition of the rights of states to pursue their own national development strategies.

In this context, civil society, especially the scientific community, calls for an urgent action on many fronts. The immensity of the problem calls for active community engagement mechanisms in order to mainstream the voices of those directly affected by the pandemic. We need people-oriented action that is guided by a scientific approach prioritising the preservation of humankind and the planet over profits. COVID-19 has highlighted the critical need for well-functioning public health systems and
public investment in scientific programs and policies. It must not be used as a new norm to disrupt socio-economic and civil-political rights of individuals and communities.

North-South and South-South cooperation must be established for access to essential medical supplies, equipment and testing kits for all nations, specifically those who have limited capacity. Obligations under Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) must be revisited to enable access to affordable health care for all countries and must be waived for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), without any strings attached.

Governments must ensure seamless availability and access to essential daily needs - food items, clothes, medicines - for all. To protect livelihoods in the informal sector, complete lock downs over extended periods should be replaced by a graded approach that can prevent a total collapse of supply chains in agriculture and manufacturing. Governments must also prevent unscrupulous opportunism and profiteering from the crisis.

A fundamental rethink is needed on the governance systems of data science in a globalised world. The ethics of AI need to be enshrined in global AI norms that prevent the harmful consequences of datafication and digitalisation.

Globally and nationally, data regimes need to balance the right to privacy with the right to science. The processing of sensitive health data by public administration systems must be bounded by the principles of necessity, proportionality and legality, as well as transparency and accountability safeguards. Tracing efforts must be backed not only by laws on personal data protection, but also, legislation specific to epidemics. Governments need to deal with the data collected during the pandemic in the most transparent and accountable ways, putting citizen rights at the centre.

While national epidemiological databases on COVID-19 are vital for enabling governments to take steps to effectively address the crisis, such data must also be pooled for furthering global public health research for the common good, ensuring future benefits are not cornered by corporations.

Finally, the global scientific community must continue to take part in the development of scientific and technological innovations not only to successfully combat the COVID-19 emergency, but also to contribute to knowledge societies that exist in harmony with nature and where individuals can lead prosperous and fulfilling lives.



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