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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Northwestern Buffett connects dots to help address urgent COVID-19 medical supply issues

Scalable approaches to addressing urgent COVID-19 testing material and medical supply chain challenges won’t come from one field or institution, one world leader, or one small group of heroes, but rather “network hubs” working to harness expertise from across disciplines, sectors, and geographies.

U.S. biotechnology companies have been able to ramp up development of a COVID-19 vaccine in record time because China posted the virus’s genetic sequence online. China is now sending medical experts and equipment to Italy, auto manufacturers have begun producing ventilators, and whiskey distilleries have pivoted to producing hand sanitizer. The world is on the verge of a global reset in which traditional paradigms, political alliances, and modes of operandi no longer hold. “We’re not in the business of that,” no longer applies. Blunting the impact of COVID-19 is everyone’s business.

In that spirit, Northwestern’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs is connecting dots, bringing “odd couples” together to confront the COVID-19 pandemic from different angles and contribute to manifesting creative solutions. Last week, Northwestern Buffett Faculty Advisory Council member and Institute for Global Health Director, Mark Huffman, brought leaders in logistics and industrial engineering together with emergency medicine and health care analytics experts to discuss approaches to addressing urgent COVID-19 medical supply chain issues.

The group included leaders from Northwestern University, Harvard Medical School, New York University’s Medical Center and the Red Cross, and discussed a number of challenges: the lack of information about what supplies hospitals need, the need to engineer alternatives to supplies and technologies in short supply, and potential problems with the global and local logistical pathways that funnel supplies to health care providers.

To catalyze progress toward addressing each of these challenges, Northwestern Buffett organized a series of rapid-fire Idea Dialogues and fielded three working groups.  

The logistics group has fielded a survey of logistics leaders worldwide. The survey will illuminate fissures in and risks to the medical supply chain: whether logistics companies have contingency plans in place for the possibility of needing to close distribution centers should COVID-19 strike their workforce—a scenario already beginning to come to fruition—how many distribution centers would need to remain open to avoid deeper disruptions to the medical supply chain, and whether governments have plans in place for the possibility of reduced private-sector logistics capacity.

A second group is working to match medical supplies with needs. Northwestern Buffett brought an online asset exchange company, Rheaply, to the table to discuss the possibility of an online marketplace designed to more efficiently match existing COVID-19 medical resources with urgent needs. Northwestern Computer Science Professor Kristian Hammond has since partnered with Rheaply to develop the Emergency Response Exchange (ERx). ERx is an online marketplace that connects hospitals in need of medical supplies with manufacturers, laboratories, and other potential resource providers. Northwestern and Rheaply has invited Illinois hospitals, medical suppliers, university labs, and “atypical” suppliers including veterinarians, dentist offices, and construction companies, to post any surplus medical supplies they have on the ERx platform. Discussions with Northwestern’s Transportation Center and others about the possibility of scaling the ERx platform internationally are also underway.

The third group convened a cross-disciplinary cadre of Northwestern researchers in biomedical engineering, materials science, microbiology, immunology, and pathology to chart a course toward potential solutions to COVID-19 medical supply shortages. The group, led by Northwestern Engineering Global Initiatives Director and Northwestern Buffett Global Council member, Matthew Grayson, has worked furiously to develop a proposal to produce a low-cost, rapidly scalable swab design for COVID-19 testing.

Northwestern University is certainly not the only place where people are working across disciplines to help hospitals find innovative solutions. Sharing the rapidly growing body of knowledge and innovation globally, however, is an enormous challenge—especially when hospitals across the COVID-19 pandemic’s epicenters do not share a common language. To facilitate transnational knowledge exchange, Northwestern Buffett is leveraging its multilingual Meridian 180 platform as a forum for healthcare professionals and hospital staff worldwide to share experiences, ideas, and innovations in four languages: Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean.

These are among the many cross-disciplinary, global initiatives underway to combat COVID-19. Thousands of lives now depend on a world without borders—a world that can coordinate across traditional silos of expertise, geography, culture, and language. We are doing all we can to catalyze this kind of coordination and we invite you to join us. Please reach out to us with ideas or to join a COVID-19 working group.