Pandemic Health Systems Reimagined in Supermind Report

The expert group referred to as “Supermind” shared ideas on five areas over four-weeks last year. Here are some of the highlights.

If two heads are better than one, then the brains of 200 global leaders and experts makes for a supermind. The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and MilliporeSigma are at it again, bringing together the thought-power of gurus in science, healthcare, public policy and other sectors to answer the question: how do we apply what we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic for the future?

The expert group, referred to as “Supermind”, shared ideas on five areas over four weeks last year. MIT’s xCoLab platform uses technology to bridge specialties, disciplines, industries and geographies to create a synthesized mind-meld of thoughts and ideas into an official report. We’ll hit the highlights for you here.

1. The Future of Scientific R&D

Our traditional modus operandi was out in the face of a novel coronavirus sweeping the globe. The world needed new treatments, testing and vaccines and they needed it fast. Collaboration became key to accelerating the pace to the “speed of science,” as Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla dubbed it. The key to continuing this pace is open-source software tools to share data and discovery, bringing commercial technologies at end of product life cycles into public domain to enrich knowledge. Collective intelligence through knowledge sharing and collaboration through online libraries and journal platforms.

The way teams and labs are built is another opportunity the Superminds presented. Diversifying teams and breaking down disciplinary silos opens the doors of creativity while encouraging more biotech-style flexible incubator labs could drive fresh discovery by providing a middle-ground between academia and R&D. A clear definition of global health priorities based on data can help the brightest minds focus on the biggest issues currently at hand and heading for us in the future.

2. Resilient Manufacturing, Supply, and Distribution Chains

The COVID-19 pandemic brought into a stark and disturbing light just how fragile our supply chain really is. The global shutdowns of manufacturing and business caused unprecedented shortages that are still seen today on empty store shelves and notices taped to entryway doors. Turns out the “shop local” movement isn’t just for your mom-and-pop shops.

The Supermind delegation points to decentralized manufacturing for local and regional production capability in times of crisis, building community resilience and shortening supply chains in addition to reducing CO2 emissions. A network of critical facilities with GMP manufacturing clearance would offer biotech startups and academic groups much-needed resources. Governments and communities have already recognized the need for emergency response stock-piling for future pandemic needs, utilizing circular manufacturing wherever possible to promote sustainability of bio-based products.

3. Disruptive Technologies

RNA-based technologies have been the star in this pandemic show, with mRNA vaccines coming to the forefront. Many pharma companies have already taken up the charge to develop more RNA-powered therapies. Data and AI are driving the charge for new, accelerated discoveries, but deeper level public health data sharing is needed while ensuring patient privacy.

4. Public Health Preparedness, Sciences, and Technologies

The MIT-powered brain conglomerate proposes a new field of “public health technology” to modernize our infrastructure. In its first Supermind report, put together in the summer of 2020, digital contact tracing was a key point in stopping the spread of COVID-19. While efforts were made across the country, due to staff shortages, widespread government mistrust and an absence of federal leadership, efforts were mostly ineffective. An official from the National Association of County and City Health Officials compared contact tracing efforts to “trying to build the plane while flying it.”

Older and wiser now, the experts are still convinced contact tracing implementation is critical and we are not above bribery. As the report says, “better incentive systems should be adopted to reward those who exhibit responsible public health behavior.” Novel technologies for diagnostics are desperately needed for low-cost, widespread public use. Early and widespread detection is key. The group also calls for label-free sensing technologies like a hand-held bioelectronic system for performing non-invasive screening tests. For all who have had that swab stuck unbelievably high up their nostril, a non-invasive device sounds groundbreaking.

5. Science Communication

WHO called it the “infodemic.” Throughout the pandemic, humans have been inundated with too much information, some true, some false, misleading half-truths. Distrust of government and pharma now runs rampant. The quorum recommends a field of infodemiology that connects to the public through authentic storytelling to engage and empower and build trust. They call on scientists to engage more in their communities, fostering scientific literacy in the media to provide true, verified and reliable information. Understanding the role of culture and human behavior in all this is essential to rebuilding trust.

The COVID-19 pandemic will not be the world’s last. What can we glean from the hard experiences of this ongoing experience that can better prepare us for what lies ahead? As William Wordsworth put it, “Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.”

Kate Goodwin is a freelance life science writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She can be reached at and on LinkedIn.