Dec 10, 2020 05:31 PM

2020 in health: What we learned at Web Summit

Health was always going to be a central theme of Web Summit 2020, and the first two days of the event featured some fascinating discussions on the health sector. Covid-19 continues to dominate every news channel, and we were lucky to hear from some of the leading experts on global recovery. But we also welcomed voices from other crucial areas of health, including mental health, inclusivity within medical research, and employee wellbeing.

“We understand the immune response better, and what we’re learning is generally good news”: Covid-19: Is there optimism in the outlook?

Dorry Segev, leading epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, took a slightly different approach to the Covid-19 pandemic: positivity. He spent 10 minutes exploring the reasons to be optimistic about the crisis, and how quickly we’ve learned since Covid-19 became a part of our lives. In the short time since the virus was discovered, medical research has progressed at an incredible speed to get us to a place where we can properly fight the spread. Dorry detailed the increased understanding of risk stratification, immune response, antibody response, outpatient monitoring and vaccine possibilities.


Dorry Segev, professor of surgery and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

One point in particular that stood out was the effect of our societal change on diseases other than Covid-19. We’ve come to accept the seasonal flu as a regular winter feature, but we don’t tend to think about the toll it takes on society. But Dorry thinks that our recent focus on hygiene, handwashing and sanitising will halve the numbers affected with the flu this year.

“Generally, as a culture, we’re pretty complacent about the toll of seasonal flu. Probably not a good thing, since the seasonal flu itself accounts for about 80,000 deaths a year. Some optimism is that it will probably never be acceptable again to show up to work with a cough, sneezing, etc – especially without a mask. It’s likely that flu deaths might drop by half for years because of habits developed during this pandemic.”

“There’s a deeper understanding of what we’re looking at, which affords us a really interesting opportunity to reclassify these medicines”: Does mental health need psychedelic support?

As neuroimaging technologies and scientific processes advance within the mental health sector, more treatment possibilities are opening up across the world. One of these revolutionary treatments is the use of psychedelics. Ariel Garten, founder of InteraXon, spoke with Mind Cure’s Kelsey Ramsden and Compass Pathway’s Ekaterina Malievskaia about the potential of psychedelic therapies, and how deeper scientific understanding “demystifies that mystical experience”.

Ekaterina: “Temporarily, people are lifted out of their egos. In these profound psychedelic experiences, they’re able to look at their life situation, their conflicts, their personal narratives, from a different vantage point. With skilful support and a carefully controlled supportive environment, they’re able to process traumatic events, memories, and generate new insights. Then, with subsequent skilful integration, they’re able to embody these insights, and that could lead potentially to changing unhelpful behavioural patterns.”

Kelsey was keen to dispel the perception of psychedelics as just a recreational activity. “It’s not psychedelics of the 70s. I want to ensure everyone understands what we’re not talking about is this idea of self-medicating or going on these wild trips. This really is a practice with deep scientific rigour, with high efficacy outcomes.”


Ariel Garten, Ekaterina Malievskaia and Kelsey Ramsden at Web Summit 2020

Finally, Ariel asked the question we were waiting for: Are these therapies legal, or is science moving too quickly for governments to keep up? The answer was mixed. Attitudes towards addictive substances vary greatly worldwide, and have tended towards criminalisation. Ekaterina discussed more liberal countries like Spain, Portugal and Canada, as well as the recent encouraging results from the US.

“The decriminalisation, not only of psychedelics but all drugs, is super important and super connected to the issue of mental health. Normally, people who use or abuse drugs are likely to be self-medicating or trying to untangle some kind of psychological issues or pre-existing trauma, and sending them to jail for the failure of the system to support them in any meaningful way, and then punishing them for their attempt to take care of themselves, is absolutely counter-productive.”

“There is an opportunity right now to also look at how this pandemic has unmasked so many ongoing, underlying issues.”:What US healthcare needs from the new administration

The US healthcare system has come under unprecedented scrutiny this year, and we’re all wondering what to expect from the next administration. Leana Wen, visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, and Mario Schlosser, CEO at Oscar, discussed the most pressing concerns they have for the future healthcare of US citizens.

Mario voiced the overall issues with the system: “The biggest problem the US healthcare system has is twofold: on the one hand, it’s too costly; on the other hand, it’s still too complicated... What I will expect from the new administration is a further move towards universal coverage.”

He also mentioned the ‘one size fits all’ approach currently operating in the US. Most people find themselves on a plan that may not suit their needs. Mario envisions “an individualised healthcare and insurance system where you can pay a particular... almost a subscription package for your health”.


Leana Wen and Mario Schlosser, interviewed by Anjalee Khemlani at Web Summit 2020

Leana zoned in on the current crisis, and how it might help the new administration to recognise some of the issues that have always been there. “There is an opportunity right now to also look at how this pandemic has unmasked so many ongoing, underlying issues. Issues around health disparities; issues around us not paying attention to these social determinants of health that actually determine how well people live. Issues also around our significant under-investment in the public health system and community health.” But, she noted, stopping the surge and handling vaccine distribution are the priorities at the moment.

She also celebrated the increased uptake of telemedicine, and hopes that it can be used to complement ‘brick and mortar’ medicine in future to provide a smarter, better service to users.

“A lot of great women are standing up and saying, ‘the frenetic way we were living...[wasn’t working]”: Healthy habits for a better world

Jessica Alba, founder of The Honest Company, and Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive, came together to discuss self-care, resilience and mental health in our current circumstances. They, like so many other founders and entrepreneurs, had to utterly re-evaluate their company’s approach to work when the world went into lockdown. Arianna said “Right now, there’s no CEO of any company who doesn’t recognise that well-being and the mental resilience of their employees is central.”

Jessica explored some of the ways she, as a founder, keeps her employees’ mental health at the top of the priority list. “We make a space for our employees to be able to communicate and articulate how they’re feeling, and then we try to channel that into something productive...And when I show up, I’m trying to articulate how I feel, and being open and vulnerable with the employee base.”

“Right now, there’s no CEO of any company who doesn’t recognise that well-being and the mental resilience of their employees is central.”

The two also discussed representation. Jessica, as a female Latinx entrepreneur, spoke about the importance of young girls having positive role models to look up to. “When little girls see Kamala Harris, they’re like, ‘OK, I can now see myself in one of the highest offices in government’. When they see someone like me, they’re like, ‘OK, I can start a company one day, and it can stand for something and have purpose'".

“We are creating with a vision to deliver and to close the gap around global health disparities”: Bridging the data gap in Africa

One of the last talks on day three was from Abasi Ene-Obong, co-founder and CEO of genetics company 54gene. The company’s aim is to increase African representation in genomics research to improve the effectiveness of drugs and medicines produced.


Abasi Ene-Obong, co-founder and CEO of 54gene

“So far, Africans make up only 2.4 percent of genome-wide association studies that have been carried out globally, despite the fact that the population is the most genetically diverse and makes up more than 14 percent of the world’s population.”

The importance of including the most diverse global population has been shown time and again. Abasi referenced the HIV medication efavirenz – which produces horrible side effects in 25 percent of Africans who use it – a fact that was overlooked during research, because of lack of representation.

What’s 54gene’s plan to begin to rectify the situation? They’re collaborating with gold-standard international researchers, both academic and commercial, to help inform studies worldwide. Their goal is that, “by collaborative and cohesive research, we can contribute somewhat to the understanding of diseases that affect all of us, regardless of ethnicity.”



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