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Technology key to effective response to curb contagion

By Charles Onyango | April 5th 2020

Behind the story of the “flattened curve” in China lies the rigorous activation of Artificial Intelligence (AI), data science and technology to battle Covid-19. China relied on her robust tech infrastructure to track and fight the outbreak. Government worked with tech-startups like Alibaba and Huawei to provide clinicians, academics and government entities with necessary support in disease surveillance and epidemic modelling among other epidemiologic activities.

In any infectious outbreak, the better the tracking system, the better public institutions can fight it. That’s where AI comes in. AI systems can give warnings of an infectious outbreak by analysing initial public health reports, and thus create a way to identify, track and forecast outbreaks.

AI also holds the promise for rapid disease diagnosis. This is possible when AI platforms are leveraged to develop a viral (Sars-CoV-2) AI solution that could help front-line healthcare workers detect and monitor the disease efficiently. This happened in China, where Alibaba innovated an AI-powered diagnosis system that, according to reports, gave 96 percent detection accuracy.

In addition, as governments introduce “social distancing” as the first-line intervention against the outbreak, AI could be used to speed up aspects like bank operations and claims processing and thus minimise contacts. Technologies like drones can be utilised to deliver medical supplies to front-line healthcare personnel with minimal risk and essential needs like food and water to both the patients in isolation and the underprivileged people.

Authorities can also rely on this type of technology to patrol public spaces and track non-compliance to quarantine directives.

Robots are sterile technological instruments. Well, robots are not susceptible to the virus. As a result, these tools cannot only be used to deliver food and medical supplies, but also perform such tasks as cleaning and sterilising and this would consequently reduce human-human contact.

Moreover, robots can be mounted with ultraviolet light scanners that power them to kill “thermophobic” infectious pathogens. Since the emergence of the Artificial Intelligence in 1950s, Pharma corporations have, for example, utilised the AI platforms to develop drugs. After WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, tech-startups like Google’s DeepMind, for instance, have been using their AI algorithms and computing power to understand the viral proteins that could be potential targets for drug development.

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Furthermore, there have been trials to use AI systems to build drugs against infectious pathogens that are resistant to even a cocktail of drugs. Such platforms and innovations could be vital for the development of predictive capabilities to treat the novel coronavirus. As demand for personal protective equipment (PPEs) increases, AI could be used to develop these medical supplies.

For instance, an Israeli tech company has embarked on the development of face masks made from anti-pathogen, anti-bacterial fabric that relies on metal-oxide nanoparticles using the artificial intelligence. Also, this week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they will be creating open-source, low-cost ventilators for patients in the US.

AI may also tell us non-compliance or infected individuals. This involves the use of highly complex surveillance system, such as facial recognition technology and temperature detection software, to identify symptomatic people.

In China, the government established the “Health Code” – a monitoring system that uses big data to identify and assesses the risk of each individual based on their travel history, how much time they have spent in virus hotspots, and potential exposure to people carrying the virus.

Based on this data, citizens are profiled by a “color code” which is helpful in identifying individuals who need immediate quarantine and also in designing proper social distancing measures. During this pandemic, misinformation has been on the rise, leading WHO to classify it as the first “social media infodemic.” AI tools like Chatbots are essential communication tools that can keep the public informed of WHO and national public health guidelines on a daily basis.

The cloud computing resources and super-computers are being used by researchers to expedite the development of therapeutic interventions against the Covid-19.

Researchers are relying on their high-powered calculations and model solutions to develop vaccines as urgent as possible. In a global infectious pandemic, technological platforms are key to the effective response to the outbreak.

-The writer works at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. [email protected]

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