Every sector, company, and individual has been affected in some way by the arrival of COVID-19. For insights into vaccine development, business transformation, and cybersecurity in these uncertain times, we interviewed Dr. David Yeregui Marcos del Blanco, a process and robotics engineer with a degree in international business management. A cofounder of Genhelix, a company devoted to cancer- and autoimmune disease-fighting biotherapies, he is currently a lead consultant for the Organization of American States’ Cybersecurity in Democratic Processes in Latin American and Caribbean Region Project.
To start, based on your biotech experience, can you explain why the coronavirus vaccine is taking so long?
Actually, the vaccine is not taking long at all. A normal clinical trial process starts with in-vitro tests in the lab, followed by a preclinical phase on animal models. Subsequently, phase one begins on healthy humans. Only after each one of the previous steps is successful, phases two and three with patients will start.
It is not unusual for novel therapies to take 5-10 years and up to USD$2 billion to obtain market approval since they start with in-vitro tests.
Lucky for us, COVID-19 is in a well-known family of viruses. The genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has already been sequenced and is being used in the development of a vaccine. Another reason to be reasonably optimistic is that SARS-CoV-2 shares around 80-90% of its genetic material with the virus that caused the SARS outbreak from 2002-2004.
While this is all good news, it is crucial not to take shortcuts and make sure that the approved vaccine(s) is/are safe and effective for humans. Based on my experience, even giving absolute priority and allocating as many resources as necessary, it is unlikely that we will have a vaccine available before the first fiscal quarter of 2021.
Until then, we should all strictly abide by the safety rules issued by our governments and trust our researchers and scientists. They have risen to every challenge so far, and I am sure they will prevail again. Let’s give them what they need and let them work. We are in great hands.
So in the meantime, what transformations do you expect to come out of the coronavirus pandemic?
This is a once-in-a-generation event. A true black swan that is going to have a profound impact on every sector. In the end, I think this situation is going to accelerate several underlying trends from the last few years:
1. The introduction of innovative technologies to facilitate a remote approach to work, leisure, and education
2. A “glocal” approach to consumer trends with two apparently contradictory but compatible aspects: a) An increase in the use of e-commerce platforms, and b) A re-discovery of local shops and businesses—what is now called “proximity trade”—as people find a new appreciation for the direct economic and employment impact of the communities they belong to.
3. A faster consolidation process through M&As. The speed and intensity for each sector will depend on how affected it is by the corona pandemic.
Is it possible that every sector will come out of this ahead if they embrace these trends?
There will be winners and losers, as always.
Some sectors are going to find it easier to adapt to the new paradigm because a particular trend goes their way. These will probably include virtual reality, drones, logistics, app development, and pharma.
Others will face bigger challenges since their traditional approach and added value rely on gatherings of large audiences and physical presence: sporting events, concert halls, cinemas, museums, gyms, etc. That is not to say that these sectors are going to disappear, but they will now be forced to innovate and change their strategies to survive. They have to find a way to incorporate technology to either enhance the experience or make it remotely available.
Isn’t that a pretty big challenge for some sectors?
Overall, there is nothing new under the sun. This is just one more era-changing event (there have been many others throughout history), that will spark and speed up transformation through innovation.
Those who can understand the upcoming reality will benefit from it, and those who refuse to accept it will lose ground—even disappear.
The Japanese language has a beautiful way to express this. Crisis is translated as kiki (危機), with two kanji characters: danger and opportunity.
It is up to each one of us to decide which one to pick.
How about the boom in remote work solutions? Based on your cybersecurity experience, are we likely to face new threats, or existing threats on a larger scale?
Unfortunately, both. Up to 95% of cyberattacks are accomplished through human interaction. These are referred to as “social engineering attacks” and include phishing, ransomware, and others.
Individuals and companies tend to act more irrationally under stress—more so when the hazard involves health or life-threatening aspects. Under such conditions, we are more likely to act impulsively and provide sensitive information to an attacker.
Additionally, due to social media proliferation, a lot of our personal information is out there, so we should expect new attacks to be detailed and personalized.
In these uncertain times, remember the cybersecurity “golden rules” for self-protection:
1. BE AWARE. You are a potential target.
2. DO NOT open spam, emails or social media messages from unknown recipients.
3. DO NOT open attachments in emails of unknown origin.
4. NEVER provide personal or financial information.
5. In the event of a ransomware attack, DO NOT pay the ransom. Report it to your company’s IT team or to your antivirus company instead.
6. Follow your gut. When in doubt, DON’T DO IT. Whatever it is. Take a deep breath and report the incident to a professional.
COVID-19 has brought back a very important lesson:
We must obviously take care of our physical condition, but also of our digital self. Our online identity needs protection and care, especially during these stressful, challenging times.