Fighting pandemics with technology
Sunil Paul, COO and co-founder of Finesse, on how digital technologies such as AI and data science can help us mitigate the Coronavirus threat.
In 2003, after the outbreak of SARS, when the Hong Kong Department of Health decided to prepare for the next pandemic, it turned to algorithms to modernise its analytics platform. As Michael Hagstrom, Executive Vice President, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and the Asia Pacific, SAS recounted in his December 2019 article published on World Economic Forum’s website, the ability to identify hotspots and forecast where the disease was likely to spread helped the department fight an outbreak of Dengue fever with no lives lost.
The lessons learned have contributed to helping Hong Kong manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic well compared to mainland China of which it is a special administrative region, with only three deaths reported to date against 3,136 deaths in China.
COVID-19 differs from other 21st-century coronavirus outbreaks like SARS and MERS in that it is far more contagious, spreading mainly through contact with contaminated surfaces, and more ominously, it can spread before it causes symptoms. On the flip side, analysis indicates that SARS and MERS were relatively deadlier than COVID-10 with SARS killing around 10 percent of people who became infected and MERS killing 35 percent. In the case of COVID-19, 3.4 percent of the people infected worldwide had died, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
So how does one control the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed 5,436 lives and infected 124,578 people (at the time of writing this blog)? And more pertinent, is there a role for information technology in containing its spread?
To contain pandemics, essential requirements would be early detection, forecasting its trajectories, monitoring the spread, disseminating correct information that promotes trust while eliminating misinformation, and managing the supply chain of medical equipment and materials needed to combat the outbreak.
For example, Taiwan combined its national health care and immigration databases to generate automated alerts based on travellers’ potential for being infected, according to a recent report by the Wired magazine. Singapore, which has a high success rate in combating COVID-19 fatalities, is using frequently updated websites as well as a government WhatsApp account to disseminate information to the island state’s population, according to the report.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), telemedicine, remote patient monitoring and consumer-facing AI-based chatbots are some of the digital tools that governments are turning to contain COVID-19 outbreak in their countries. An oft-cited AI example is of Canadian firm BlueDot’s early-warning system, which alerted the company’s customers about COVID-19 at the end of December even before the WHO. The system uses AI, including natural-language processing and machine learning, to track over 100 infectious diseases by analysing about 100,000 articles in 65 languages every day.
Epidemic risk modelling firm Metabiota had determined that Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan had the highest risk of seeing COVID-19 show up more than a week before cases in those countries were reported partially by looking to flight data.
Earlier this month, Bangkok Post reported that China’s State Council is backing an app that draws on a range of data points, such as public transport records and flight bookings, to tell people if they have come close to a person known to be infected with COVID-19.
AI is also being used to confirm the presence of COVID-19 infection. Nikkei’s Asian Review had reported that Alibaba’s AI-based system could detect coronavirus in CT scans of patients with an accuracy of up to 96 percent in less than 20 seconds.
Apart from detection, AI-based algorithms are being used in tandem with clinical-grade sensors to remotely monitor patients who have already been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are suspected of being infected in order to support clinical decision-making.
Monitoring these patients remotely with clinical-grade sensors and collecting data on numerous physiological signals could improve clinical decision-making. AI-based chatbots have been launched by in India, US, Japan to answer frequent questions posed by the public about COVID-19 about symptoms, hygiene measures and treatment procedures, and in some cases, even connect them to remote doctors.
Telehealth systems can help critical patients get the treatment they need without endangering doctors. For example, 5G technology, which offers high bandwidth and low latency, can make remote diagnosis and treatment more efficient and convenient, as demonstrated in China. In January, Chinese firms ZTE and China Telecom joined hands to build a 5G-based remote consultation system for diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, the epidemic’s epicentre.
Chinese firms have also harnessed blockchain-based applications to combat the virus. For example, Alipay-owned insurance firm Xiang Hu Bao is using blockchain technology to process coronavirus claims, which has helped reduce back and forth paperwork involving clinics and the insurance company. Alipay has also collaborated with Zhejiang Provincial Health Commission and the Economy & Information Technology Department to develop a blockchain-based app that allows users to track allocation and donation of relief supplies, as well as the review, recording and tracing of demand and supply chains of medical supplies.
On a different note, information technology is also being harnessed for research. Google’s Deepmind AI unit has made available in the public domain its predictions detailing the structure of six proteins linked to COVID-19. These structural predictions could help scientists understand how the virus functions in order to develop the potential treatment.
In the 21st century, epidemics are becoming a fact of life. As WHO notes in its ‘Managing Epidemics’ manual, they are sparked either by the re-emergence of pathogens that have been familiar for a long time, but now threaten new, immunologically vulnerable populations, or are newly-emerging ones. They come in a daunting array of species of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. In such a scenario, information technology could serve as a force multiplier to the government’s efforts to contain and eliminate epidemics.