2020: The triumph of science


21 Jan 2022

Image: © Djavan Rodriguez/Stock.adobe.com

Believe it or not, 2020 gave us reasons to be hopeful.

2020 might be one many would like to forget, but there’s much worth remembering from a tumultuous year that undeniably left its mark on us all.

Future Human

It was rough right out of the gates. In January, wildfires were raging across Australia and Brexit was threatening to blow up the Irish economy. We had a general election in February but no new Government until June. And, in that time, the world as we knew it was upended.

The threat of Covid-19 saw Indeed take the lead on sending Irish staff to work from home in February. Others followed, deeming it a temporary fix. But as remote working policies were extended and extended, it called into question whether the centralised office would even have a future.

A ‘new normal’ centred on flexible working had been proven possible by the pandemic. Fujitsu and Siemens ran with the idea, introducing permanent remote working plans for more than 200,000 employees between them.

The prescience of former Silicon Republic journalist Lisa Ardill has to be noted. In December 2019, she predicted that 2020 could become the year of working in our pyjamas. What she didn’t realise was that we’d be doing everything that way. Thankfully Disney+ had arrived in Ireland just in time, and by summer we had Animal Crossing to keep us from burning out.

Google Maps data revealed that recreation activity dropped 83pc in Ireland from February to March. Non-Covid healthcare was put on hold. Irish institutions had to radically change how research was conducted. A death knell was sounded for international business travel and supply chains were hit. The chip shortage was exacerbated, threatening the roll-out of the year’s anticipated gadgets and games consoles. There was a sharp rise in cyberattacks as malicious hackers targeted critical health infrastructure. Cinema had to pivot to streaming and there was such pressure on online networks that Netflix had to reduce its stream quality in Europe and Facebook and Instagram had to lower their video bitrates. Jobs were created, and jobs were lost. Recruitment, skills, lab work, drug manufacturing and life sciences in general – everything was affected.

2020 was such a rollercoaster that it makes for a pretty intense video game. And if you’re reading this, you made it. Though many didn’t.

The death toll from Covid-19 would be substantially higher if not for the triumph of science in 2020. Not only the record-setting development of a successful vaccine, but the science-led decision-making that protected people.

We were writing about “life after coronavirus” as early as April, and while it may have been premature, hope was key to resilience throughout 2020. And, thankfully, our faith in science was repaid.

Reflecting on 20 years in STEM, Prof Mark Ferguson, who served as director general of Science Foundation Ireland for half of this period, was incredibly hopeful in the wake of 2020.

“We have all witnessed first-hand the contribution made by science, research and innovation globally to managing the Covid-19 crisis: effective new vaccines delivered in less than one year – something previously thought impossible,” he said.

“We need to now work collaboratively to apply the same expertise, focus and dedication to deal with the many other challenges our world is facing from climate change to food security.”

The C-word

China confirmed human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on 20 January. Days later, Wuhan – the epicentre of the first Covid-19 outbreak – was quarantined and the WHO declared a public health emergency. By 11 March, it was officially a pandemic.

Elon Musk changed his stance from “the coronavirus panic is dumb” to getting SpaceX and Tesla to work on ventilators to treat severe cases of Covid-19. Irish-headquartered Medtronic also moved to meet the global demand for ventilators, doubling production at its Galway plant. Microsoft developed a chatbot to help the US Centers for Disease Control assess citizens reporting symptoms. Apple donated millions of masks to healthcare professionals and Jack Dorsey pledged $1bn to support relief programmes. Sci-tech was stepping up in a big way.

Contact tracing was crucial to quelling the spread of the virus, but apps developed for this purpose had to ensure data privacy. Whether contact-tracing data should be centralised or decentralised was debated even as the number of cases continued to multiply.

This was Irish open-source developer NearForm’s time to shine. Its Covid Green source code for Ireland’s contact-tracing app was publicly released and became part of the Linux Foundation Public Health initiative, supporting the build of privacy-conscious contact-tracing tech around the world.

Another Irish company was also working to help the HSE handle Covid. Trinity spin-out Akara Robotics began testing robotic disinfection in Irish hospitals, officially launching new healthcare robot Violet at the end of the year. Using UV light, Violet could disinfect an entire room in as little as five minutes.

At year-end, there were more than 80m confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, while a new highly-infectious variant of the virus led to Christmas lockdowns. But there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Victory for vaccines

Pfizer announced its partnership to develop a Covid-19 vaccine with German pharma company BioNTech in March. This would become one of the defining stories of the pandemic: that of the immigrant husband-and-wife team behind the first Covid-19 vaccine to secure regulatory approval.

Like Moderna, BioNTech founders Uğur Şahin and ‎Özlem Türeci‎ chose to develop a mRNA vaccine, which works by sending messenger RNA to the body so that cells can create a fragment of the targeted virus, teaching the immune system to recognise this foreign antigen. Other vaccine candidates used the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to help the body get to know the virus. One example of this, Covax-19, was developed by Australian biotech Vaxine with the help of Irish pharma research firm APC.

Oxford-AstraZeneca’s protein-based vaccine was advantageous in that it didn’t require cold storage so it was easier to store and distribute. These logistical challenges were just some of the issues leading to global vaccine inequality, and this outbreak of ‘vaccine nationalism’ would only serve to prolong the crisis.

The misinformation pandemic

Once we had vaccines, the question turned to whether we would get enough people to take them.

As Covid-19 spread around the world, an existing global ‘infodemic’ produced a wave of conspiracy theories. A battle commenced between science and misinformation and scientists got busy debunking claims that hydroxychloroquine or vitamin C could cure Covid-19.

Some people were even so convinced that 5G caused Covid-19 that they burned equipment and assaulted technicians. (A November survey in Ireland found 20pc of respondents associated health risks with 5G.)

Content platforms had already done good groundwork in tackling vaccine misinformation in 2019 and even stronger measures were introduced by WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter in 2020. Twitter also cracked down on the QAnon conspiracy group, banning 7,000 associated accounts.

Didn’t they do well?

It has long been observed that from crisis springs opportunity, and 2020’s travails were no exception.

Zoom was the word on everyone’s lips as the video-conferencing platform helped colleagues, friends and family stay connected during lockdowns. Pre-pandemic, Irishman Harry Mosely, Zoom’s CIO, described how he ran a distributed workforce, which eschewed business travel in favour of the company’s software. And in 2020 we were all eating Zoom’s dog food, driving a record year of 367pc revenue growth.

Zoom’s year was not without its challenges, though. As quickly as it became a household name, the terms Zoombombing and Zoom fatigue entered the lexicon. But the popular platform had plenty to celebrate, not least how it helped keep some working entertainers afloat. A group of Irish filmmakers even made a movie on it.

Some Irish companies also had a banner year. LetsGetChecked’s recent unicorn status can be attributed to rapid growth in 2020. It raised one of the biggest Irish funding rounds of the year for its home health testing kits, which included a two-part test for Covid-19. Online food-ordering platform Flipdish, which has also since become a unicorn, rolled out table ordering tech for reopening restaurants and announced hundreds of new jobs.

Overall, VC investment in Ireland hit a record high during the pandemic, with several innovative start-ups managing to raise funds during a very tough period.

2020 also saw two major Irish acquisitions. At the beginning of the year, chipmaker Decawave was snapped up in a mega deal worth $400m. And between being called on for his immunology expertise and his company’s €380m acquisition by Roche, Inflazome co-founder Prof Luke O’Neill spent a year in the spotlight. In November, he was recognised by Science Foundation Ireland for his Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication.

To the future

As the pandemic rumbled on and major world events were cancelled, postponed or sent to the virtual world of video conferencing, it was decided that the successor event to the award-winning Inspirefest would go ahead in October, but with a twist.

Silicon Republic’s Future Human set out to be the first major international tech event in the world to go hybrid. From a physical stage to a virtual audience, event founder Ann O’Dea welcomed Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, investor Brad Feld, former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham and more. On the agenda was all the year’s hot STEM topics, from remote working and healthcare, to lockdown creativity and vaccines.

Following a successful, albeit very different conference, Future Human will return on 12 and 13 May 2022. Sticking with the hybrid format, attendees both in person at the Trinity Business School in Dublin and online from around the world will hear from leading thinkers in science, robotics, AI, climate action, security, health and the arts.

We can’t wait to welcome you to the most inclusive and forward-looking event in the world, where we can raise a toast to a bright future.

In other news

12 January: Scientists report that microstructures within some remarkably well-preserved fossilised dinosaur cartilage could be DNA, prompting inevitable Jurassic Park references.

15 January: The EU Parliament votes in favour of the European Green Deal.

11 February: Samsung adds more polish to its foldable smartphone range with the launch of the Galaxy Z Flip.

30 April: Huawei completes construction of the world’s highest base station, bringing 5G to the summit of Mount Everest.

15 May: Researchers in Argentina announce they have discovered the fossilised remains of a lethal 10m-long ‘megaraptor’.

1-4 June: Planned launch events from Sony, Google and EA are postponed so as not to detract from Black Lives Matter protests across the US.

2 June: A $5bn class action lawsuit against Google alleges that Chrome tracks users even in incognito mode.

15 July: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Kanye West and more see their Twitter accounts hacked in the name of a bitcoin scam.

29 July: Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg face hours of questioning from US lawmakers in an antitrust hearing.

6 August: TikTok selects Ireland as the location of its first data centre in Europe, adding to the trust and safety hub established in Dublin earlier in the year.

13 August: Fortnite creator Epic Games files antitrust suits against Apple and Google after it was banned from their app stores for creating its own in-app payments system to circumvent the 30pc cut they take for each transaction.

28 August: At a livestreamed event, Elon Musk introduces Gertrude the pig, one of the first living things to have a Neuralink chip implanted in its brain.

19 September: Donald Trump gives his blessing for Oracle and Walmart to take a combined 20pc stake in TikTok Global Business so that the Chinese-owned company can continue operating in the US. (TikTok-owner ByteDance later dropped the deal when Trump failed to get re-elected.)

21 September: Microsoft announces a $7.5bn deal to acquire ZeniMax, the parent company of game publisher Bethesda Softworks.

7 October: Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier win a Nobel Prize for their discovery of CRISPR-Cas9.

20 October: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx briefly touches down on Bennu to retrieve samples from the surface of the asteroid.

10 November: Apple unveils the first Mac computers powered by its own M1 chip, marking its move away from Intel processors.

10 November: Microsoft releases the Xbox Series X and Series S consoles.

12 November: Sony releases the PlayStation 5.

17 November: Apple celebrates 40 years in Cork.

30 November: DeepMind announces that its AI has solved the puzzle of protein folding, a biological mystery that has perplexed scientists for 50 years.

1 December: The Arecibo Telescope, recognisable from appearances in GoldenEye and Contact, collapses two weeks after it was announced that the observatory would be decommissioned.

1 December: Salesforce agrees to buy Slack for $27.7bn, its largest ever acquisition.

26 December: Getting ahead of a coming trend, Bloomberg dubs 2020 ‘year of the meme stock’.

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