THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
Health professionals from around the world along with government officials, policymakers, and academics, as well as leading figures from the world of sports and entertainment descended on Doha, Qatar last week for the tenth iteration of the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH).
The annual summit, held this year from 4 – 6 October under the theme ‘Healing the Future’, focused on discussion centered on advantages and challenges in the health domain. The gathering of global stakeholders to exchange ideas and innovations surrounding health is an initiative of Qatar Foundation, the state-led not-for-profit organization that groups over 50 entities in the fields of education, science and community development.
In her opening remarks at the inauguration of WISH 2022, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chairperson of Qatar Foundation stated, “WISH has always been a summit of big ideas. This year our themes are many, with one overarching goal — a search for solutions to enable all of us to live balanced, safe and healthy lives.” She added, “This is where sports and exercise play a huge role, as participation is unlimited by age or class, but open to all.
Big sporting events have always been a source of inspiration, and this has motivated the State of Qatar to host the FIFA World Cup, breathing new life into our country. Events such as these can inspire us all, here in Qatar and across the world, to rebuild our healthcare systems, making them robust and accessible to all.”
In his remarks at the opening ceremony, British-American surgeon, academic and politician, Prof. Lord Ara Darzi of Denham, executive chair of WISH said: “This has been WISH’s mission from the start: to bring people together to develop, to promote, disseminate innovations that can really transform the world. Over the next three days, it is my hope that we can learn together, inspire each other to achieve our shared ambitions.
We can show the world how, in place of discord and division, collaboration and cooperation can help us meet the challenges we face. With the power of the WISH community, we can promote better health for everyone and broaden access to high quality care for all. This is what we mean by healing the future.”
Among the dignitaries attending the opening ceremony in Doha’s Education City, was the President of Tanzania, H.E. Samia Suluhu Hassan, the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, and the First Lady of Sierra Leone Dr. Fatima Maada Bio, as well as ministerial delegations from 16 countries.
Keynote speakers at the event included Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, the husband and wife co-founders of the German startup company BioNTech, and Dr. Noubar Afeyan, the founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, the US-based venture capital firm, and co-founder of Moderna, the company that developed the widely applied COVID-19 vaccine. Other speakers included British long-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist, Mo Farah, and US film actor and director, Morgan Freeman.
In his keynote address to the gathering on opening day, Dr. Afeyan highlighted the importance of preempting diseases rather than reacting to health emergencies each time. “The efforts of all of us in this room to advance human health are taking place against the backdrop of what we call a health care system, but in reality it is a sick care system. We spend an enormous amount of time, effort and money treating people once they are sick, rather than trying to keep them healthy,” said Dr. Afeyan.
He pointed out that by waiting for a disease to manifest before seeking solutions we end up with increased expenses, fewer people being able to obtain care, and worse outcomes. Noting that healthcare disparities could be resolved through early identification that prevents disease and reverses or manages a pre-disease condition, he added, “Early detection that preempts disease or reverses or manages a pre-disease condition could offer a solution to healthcare inequities. We call this preemptive health: the application of leading-edge biological sciences and digital technology to traditional public health goals.”
In discussing his experiences in developing Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Afeyan emphasized the importance of imagination and innovation in producing biotechnological leaps. If anyone should know about the importance of creativity and innovation in medical development, it has to be Dr. Afeyan; he has more than a 100 patents to his name, and his firm, Flagship Pioneering has so far supported and helped over 80 life science and technology start-ups to develop innovative technologies that have transformed human health and sustainability.
On day two of the summit, in a virtual address on the summit’s key theme of post-COVID-19 legacy, Dr. Sahin and Dr.Türeci discussed the work that went into developing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and the importance of capitalizing on the momentum generated by the development of their mRNA vaccine to advance medical science. The couple also revealed BioNTech plans to augment vaccine equity by enabling people across the world to develop their own vaccines through knowledge and technology transfer.
Elaborating on the issue of vaccine equity, the BioNTech founders shared that when they saw the inequality in vaccine distribution and availability in the developing world, especially countries in Africa, they felt obliged to address this with the same resolve they had for the development of a vaccine in the first place. Their concept of ‘BioNtainers’ to address this issue comprises of integrated containers that can be shipped anywhere and can help with developing vaccines not only for COVID-19 but other diseases as well.
For her part, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead for the COVID-19 response at the World Health Organization (WHO), discussed ways in which nations could implement measures to prepare for the next pandemic. First, she explained, leaders need to cooperate with organizations such as WHO and send a prior warning to better prepare for a global emergency. This way, other countries are informed prior to a possible outbreak in order to be better prepared to curb the spread.
She added that our ability to act quickly can increase the effectiveness of our reactions and keep the entire world, especially low-income nations, on high alert for the next pandemic. The WHO, in cooperation with the Qatar Ministry of Health, also launched the artificial intelligence-powered WHO Digital Health Worker, Florence version 2.0, at the summit. The digital worker offers an interactive platform to share a myriad of health topics in seven languages.
A key element discussed in this year’s summit was on vaccine inequality. As countries expand their vaccination drive to curb the spread of the virus globally and aim for a return to normality, we collectively have to admit that the global vaccine response was far from being equitable and that not all countries received their fair share of the shots.
This year’s summit witnessed 20 healthcare entrepreneurs from 13 countries being selected from nearly 600 applicants to showcase their healthcare innovations at the summit. Additionally, the Innovation Hub gave visitors to WISH 2022 an opportunity to engage with organizations which are working to promote health and health innovation.
The top four winners of its 2022 Innovation Competitions, from two categories — Spark, for early-stage startups, and Booster, for established startups looking to scale, were announced during the closing ceremony of WISH 2022 In the Spark category, Rea Diagnostics was selected as the winner of the grand prize of US$5,000. Founded by Loulia Kasem, the Switzerland-based startup has been working to identify women at risk of preterm birth (PTB), which is the leading cause of death in infants below the age of five. Early risk identification of PTB can help doctors administer the necessary medical treatment to decrease potential harm to the fetus. The startup is addressing this through a non-invasive testing kit, a smart pad, that tracks the biomarkers in vaginal fluid indicative of PTB.
In the Booster Category, TADA Medical AB from Sweden was granted the grand prize of US$10,000 for its ReLink connector that tackles the challenge of accidental disconnection of IV (intravenous) therapy. The device works as a breakaway connector for IV lines to increase the safety, accuracy, and efficiency of IV therapy in healthcare settings. Its unique design features double-sided, self-sealable valves, with weak link activation to protect the catheter placement site and prevent loss of fluid resources that could otherwise lead to complications and increased costs.
In addition to the cash prize winners, two other health innovation startups, Neurosoft Bioelectronics from Switzerland, in the Spark Category, and Smiletronix from Spain, in the Booster Category, were announced as winners of WISH-sponsored trips to the Web Summit 2022 slated for 1– 4 November in Lisbon, Portugal.
Neurosoft Bioelectronics is developing innovative medical applications for neural implants. Founded by Nicolas Vachicouras, the startup’s main innovation is the development of high-resolution soft implantable electrodes that can interface with the brain. The electrodes are a hundred times smaller and thousand times softer than currently available ones and are accompanied by a technological application the SOFT TINNIT. This application is the first fully implantable Brain-Computer Interface to treat severe tinnitus, a debilitating disorder that impacts millions worldwide.
Smiletronix, developed by Yashar Faranjani, is an intraoral imaging device, and an application that captures comprehensive photos of the entire mouth and diagnoses a wide variety of oral diseases in less than 15 seconds. The solution uses an Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm that completes a diagnosis with an accuracy of around 90-95 percent. Through computer vision and deep learning technology, the device helps in analysis of the teeth and gum for early detection of dental issues and offers preventive recommendations.
Commenting on the occasion, Mahmoud Al Achi, head of Innovation at WISH, said, “We are thoroughly pleased to announce the winners of this year’s competitions and help guide their ambitions to make healthcare more affordable, sustainable, and accessible for communities around the world by tapping into the plethora of benefits that machine learning and AI technologies have to offer.
WISH 2022, also saw the return of the popular Agora discussion sessions. Based on the traditional Greek assembly places where community members would meet to exchange news, the Agora sessions were 30-minute, informal moderated interactive discussions aimed at driving dynamic conversations between select expert speakers and the audience. This year the audience was mostly made up of online participants of the summit, who were able to stream all the sessions live via the WISH Qatar app. Each Agora examined a particularly challenging and timely issue facing the healthcare industry today.
Across three days, WISH 2022 explored a wide range of topics through talks, presentations and interactive panel discussions, workshops and roundtables that hopefully will go a long way to addressing some of the pressing health challenges facing the global community.