Zipline, in partnership with Pfizer, delivers COVID-19 vaccines by drones to remote areas. Photo by: Zipline

COVID-19 has helped rather than hindered the Bay Area Global Health Alliance’s mission to connect and mobilize expertise within California’s Bay Area for improved global health impact, the alliance’s Executive Director Sara Anderson told Devex.

“Our belief from the beginning has been that the tech sector has a key role to play, and that's certainly been validated over the past year,” she said, adding that the integration of technology through global health partnerships is vital to increase access to care globally.

The alliance first came together with the region's major universities and with seed funding from Gilead Sciences, Chevron, MSD for Mothers, PATH, Facebook, Pfizer, and the Public Health Institute. It was only a few months into its mission when the pandemic hit, transforming the way many organizations had to operate. Yet the importance of using the moment to accelerate solutions to address the pandemic and global health challenges and inequities was not lost on the alliance.

“Our growth in 2020, our inaugural year, can partially be attributed to the realization that partnerships and collaborations across sectors were going to be necessary to move forward and to save and improve lives,” Anderson said, adding that such collaborations will be key.

The growing alliance membership spans three key sectors — academia, the private sector, and nonprofits — and includes the likes of Google, UNICEF USA, and Stanford University.

Speaking to Devex, Anderson explained why the Bay Area is the best place to nurture such collaborations and what successes it’s already seeing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“We want to connect the work the sector is already doing on global health with the other sectors we represent. The tech sector needs to be at the table in order to scale, increase access to care, and improve outcomes.”

— Sara Anderson, executive director, Bay Area Global Health Alliance

Talk us through why engaging the technology sector, as well as others, is key to advancing global health equity?

Your question really brings up for me what the Bay Area Global Health Alliance is all about. Our strategic priorities are to build connections, and a Bay Area community among diverse sectors and organizations focused on global health and to engage the tech sector to advance global health innovation and equity.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the involvement of tech in all aspects of health care. Many tech companies were already involved in global health prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic has accelerated that exponentially.

Incredible innovations in biotechnology and technology truly have the potential to transform global health. But, that unique DNA of the Bay Area’s technology and innovation ethos has not been fully leveraged or applied to advance global health equity.

We want to connect the work the sector is already doing on global health with the other sectors we represent. The tech sector needs to be at the table in order to scale, increase access to care, and improve outcomes.

In global health, tech for health or digital health — no matter what you call it — has gone from being a nice-to-have to an essential for health care delivery, data, and decision making.

Why is the Bay Area the best place for this to convene?

For more than half a century, our region has been a global center of tech innovation, entrepreneurship, and expertise. The Bay Area also has been this hub of extraordinary health innovation for the past 30 to 40 years. When the AIDS epidemic first emerged in the 1980s, for example, Bay Area institutions led the response.

Our region has many sectors and organizations that are focused on health, but what was lacking was a central network hub to build connections and harness the Bay Area's ethos to advance innovation, global health, equity, and innovation. We envision a world where Bay Area research, development, and implementation capacities are channeled to catalyze that.

We help our members achieve their own goals and foster partnerships through shared learnings, serving as a neutral convener, and one-on-one matchmaking — a signature role of the Alliance. By doing so, we hope to strengthen the Bay Area as a global health hub.

How has COVID-19 altered the work you planned to do?

Many of our members have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis since the beginning, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, and other stakeholders.

It's been interesting work trying to build a global health community during a pandemic when our member experts have been heads down and extremely focused on the response. That was a bit of a challenge … But in many ways, we’ve been able to take advantage of this situation and reach out to more people, more rapidly, more globally.

COVID-19 reaffirmed the need for partnerships that not only promote health and wellness but also mount an emergency response to a devastating pandemic affecting the entire world. It also caused us to expand our own partnerships.

We were asked to join WHO's Tech Task Force. WHO realized that involving the tech sector was essential before the pandemic and made it a priority. Amid the pandemic, they have been working on — and we have joined them — looking at how the tech sector can come together to get accurate information on COVID-19 out to where people already are and help keep them safe.

From your work thus far, are there examples you can share that demonstrate the impact tech can have on global health?

Our members’ — Facebook and Google — efforts to provide accurate information on COVID-19 are great examples. Both companies mobilized their expertise to link users to COVID-19 testing and vaccine delivery.

Geo for Good’s introduction of COVID-19 layers on maps for you to see the most up-to-date information: how many new cases have been detected in your area and if there's a change. Facebook is also working to drive vaccine confidence and vaccine education efforts, and combat vaccine-hesitancy.

Other examples include Zipline and its partnership with Pfizer to deliver vaccines by drones to remote areas, Zenysis’ harnessing of big data and advanced analytics to vaccinate efficiently and equitably, and Stanford University and PHI’s use of data from wastewater surveillance to detect the levels of COVID in communities. Equalize Health, PATH, Mastercard, and others also use technology to accelerate access to care.

In your inaugural year, what lessons have you learned, and how will these alter activities going forward?

Going forward, we’re looking to find and promote ways of involving the sector and fostering collaborations both locally and globally to help the return to some semblance of normalcy and to address some of the inequalities that have been laid bare throughout the pandemic.

We're reaching out to other tech companies in the area to see how they can help further help with vaccine delivery and connecting them with local public health partners … We’ve also convened experts from the NGO sector and academia to meet with and help some tech companies pressure test new technologies that are being developed to accelerate access to care in low-resource settings. We'll do more of that kind of matchmaking because it was really successful this past year.

The primary value underpinning the Bay Area Global Health Alliance is that more is truly possible if we work together. I would extend an invitation to all organizations based in the Bay Area that are concerned about improving access to health care, health equity, and health access to join us because we really can accomplish great things if we work together.

This coverage, presented by the Bay Area Global Health Alliance, explores the intersection between technology, innovation, and health. How are tech, innovation, and cross-sector partnerships being leveraged to accelerate equitable access to health care?

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