Similar to things like Zoom and remote work in the business sector, bioinformatics was still a part of the everyday life of some people before the pandemic, but just like them, it has come into the spotlight during the COVID-19 scare; the unique combination of informatics and biology make bioinformatics an easy pick for analyzing information related to the virus.
From the development of a vaccine to contact tracing, bioinformatics has played a large part in the world’s battle against COVID-19, and here is a closer look at some of the ways it has done so.
Before understanding its role in the COVID-19 response, one must know what bioinformatics means. As mentioned in the introduction, it’s a field that combines data science and biology, with the ultimate goal of fixing biological issues utilizing data. Similar to other data fields, bioinformatic professionals develop and utilize tools that mine biological data relative to organisms, gene sequences, and most relevantly, diseases.
Even before entering the fight against COVID-19, the bioinformatics field was a multi-billion dollar industry, with a global market reach of more than $7 billion in 2018. Based on current growth, the global market is expected to almost triple by 2025, so if you’re in the biology or data science field, advancing your education relative to the other half of bioinformatics may pay some hefty dividends in the future.
In addition to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, growth is also expected due to greater funding for life science research, the growth of precision medicine, and a greater trust in AI, and the success rate of predictive analytics.
Bioinformatics in Early Stages of Pandemic
As soon as the World Health Organization was made aware of a new strain of coronavirus in China, bioinformatics went to work on identifying the makeup of this strain. Though it seems like forever ago, that identification is ultimately the first step towards a vaccine, as well, but in the early stages, the hopes were that bioinformatics would give the world the good news that the virus was so similar to something else, that a vaccine already existed. As we all know too well, that did not end up being the case.
After determining what exactly was in the virus, bioinformatics specialists were able to determine what symptoms would most likely identify a COVID-positive individual, allowing for the first stages of global recognition. Leaders in healthcare professions were able to teach their staff how to identify probable COVID-positive patients and quarantine them accordingly, thanks to bioinformatics and predictive analysis related to the makeup of the virus.
This also played a key role in developing testing, which was a much more scientific and accurate way of determining if someone was infected, in comparison to symptom identification.
Utilizing the same biostatistics as those used to help detect the virus, scientists were able to compare and contrast other strains of the coronavirus to inform the world of ways to protect themselves against it. Killing the virus with anti-bacterial and vigorously washing hands was determined using bioinformatics tools. In addition, recommendations like social distancing and mask-wearing were also products of this research and analysis.
The second that scientists were able to determine what was in the virus, they went to work with determining how to end the pandemic. Every case meant more information for science teams to utilize as they worked hours upon hours to find a way to stop COVID-19. Without the technology available that allowed scientists and healthcare professionals from all over the world to pool their data and give predictive analysis relative to the virus, the odds of a vaccine existing as quickly as it did (less than a year for a vaccine to a virus is exceptional) would have been slim to none.
This field is not only exciting, but it’s important and sensible. As the old adage goes, “work smarter, not harder” and that is exactly what the field of bioinformatics allows scientists to do, ultimately making evolutions in medicine much faster than in the past.