Taiwan Is Open for Business: A COVID-19 Tech Template
Taiwan, tech-savvy and pandemic-prepared, has emerged as the gold standard for containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Using hard lessons learned from previous epidemics, frequent earthquakes and other natural disasters, the island nation has so far successfully leveraged its technology base, big data and innovation to build up its public health defenses.
The result: While most of the world is in lockdown, Taiwan is open for business, producing gear like test kits, personal protection equipment and masks desperately needed by the rest of the world. It also perfected contact tracing and other tracking schemes that tapped travel and insurance databases, then connected the dots via big data analytics.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), the vanguard in the fight against COVID-19, is now looking for ways to apply its COVID-19 template to the rest of the world. Over the last several months, the agency has transitioned through containment and production phases (masks, PPEs) to the next step: technology innovation, entrepreneurship and, most important, the commercialization and scaling of technologies ranging from COVID-19 test kits and contact tracing frameworks to the ultimate goal: a vaccine that would arrest the spread of SARS/CoV-2.
“We were very proactive, very sensitive to the sources of the infection,” Liang-Gee Chen, Taiwan’s minister of science and technology, said during a lessons-learned forum this week hosted by the Taipei branch of the technology incubator Techstars.
After identifying the SARS/CoV-2 strain and its source, Chen’s ministry moved quickly to establish border controls that relied heavily on Taiwan’s many health and travel databases.
“We tried to leverage all the science and technology built up in response to the  SARS outbreak,” added Chen, a former chip designer. The ministry also gleaned emergency response data gathered in the wake of Taiwan’s many earthquakes.
The next step in Taiwan’s response was the formation of “Tiger Teams” to develop and scale tools needed to stop COVID-19, including ongoing work toward a vaccine, Chen said.
If successful, that would set the stage for innovators to come up with integrated tools for tracking the virus’ spread, including test kits and contact tracing platforms. Another requirement is developing governance protocols for handling private data. Then, there is the future of telemedicine.
Those efforts would build on Taiwan’s extensive network of laboratory research that helped detect the SAR/CoV-2 strain in China along with Taiwan’s penchant for entrepreneurship and technology commercialization.
Once the SARS/CoV-2 strain was identified late last year, for example, public health officials met all flights arriving from the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan, China. They then used customs data to develop contact tracing tools seen as a key to stopping the spread of the virus.
Similar efforts are slowly ramping up in the U.S., including Bluetooth-based systems being developed by Apple and Google. But what worked for a small island nation like Taiwan will have to be scaled up to be effective in the United States, according to C. Jason Wang, director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention. Then there are vexing data privacy issues to be sorted out.
“Taiwan did incredibly well in containing COVID-19,” said Wang, who is also an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University. That template is useful, but must be modified because “the U.S. needs a mitigation strategy because it didn’t have a containment strategy” akin to Taiwan’s.
In a widely circulated article on Taiwan’s response to the outbreak in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Wang and his co-authors stressed the practical application of big data analytics, emerging technologies and “proactive testing.”
“Taiwan quickly mobilized and instituted specific approaches for case identification, containment and resource allocation to protect the public health,” the JAMA article noted. “Taiwan leveraged its national health insurance database and integrated it with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics; it generated real-time alerts during a clinical visit based on travel history and clinical symptoms to aid case identification.”
In jam-packed Taiwan, Wang said, contact tracing platforms that helped public health officials track exposure to the coronavirus worked well. Amidst the urban sprawl of large American cities, that approach will have to be modified.
As for data privacy, Wang said U.S. alternatives include opting in or out of contract tracing schemes, but mandatory participation probably won’t fly. Data collection also should be limited to questions like, have you traveled anywhere in the last two weeks? (the incubation period of the virus), then figuring out how to quarantine and test those exposed to the coronavirus.
Others issues include how long COVID-19 data should be stored and who will be granted access, Wang said.
Ultimately, U.S. public health officials will have to decide, but Wang and Chen both stressed the reality that stopping the pandemic requires a “social contract” obligating those infected or exposed to share private data. “We have a social obligation to create a set of rules” for handling private data collected through techniques like contact tracing, Wang said. “We’re talking about tradeoffs” in the midst of a pandemic.
Once those tradeoffs are made, technology development should consider existing infrastructure. The resulting solutions must be turnkey, Wang added, tailored to each country’s available resources and COVID-19 mitigation requirements.
To that end, Techstars is sponsoring a technology challenge to help jumpstart efforts to come up with new ways to track and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
A replay of the webinar, “How Taiwan Can Help Solve COVID-19?” is here. (In a sign of the times, Minister Chen spoke from his Taipei office; Dr. Wang from his Bay Area home.)