The Role of AI in Combating The Spread of Coronavirus


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With the COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on every global activity, the world has come to a halt. With the exception of Antarctica, every continent has reported a surging number of infections, and the numbers keep on rising exponentially. This has forced leaders from all over the world to implement lockdowns and quarantine measures, to prevent the spread as much as possible.

Even with people residing, leading metropolitan cities look no different than ghost towns, as the stay-at-home measures become more stringent. From schools to airports, everything is at a standstill, and the world has its eyes set for the cure, before regular life can continue again.

In addition, this pandemic is the first ever health crisis of such a scale in this century. Luckily, we have much better tools and technologies to predict, manage and explain the crisis, unlike the health crises which came before.

AI is playing a major role in helping us with important insights, infection spread mapping, vaccine development and in numerous other ways.

Infection Spread Mapping

AI can simplify the process of infection spread mapping, and can ring the alarm before the infection can become a global pandemic. One of the sub-categories of AI is machine learning. With machine learning, intelligent computer systems can be taught to identify common patterns in large sets of data, to pinpoint important insights.

One such AI company that effectively identified such information way ahead of time is BlueDot, based in Toronto, Canada.

“On Dec. 31, BlueDot alerted its customers about a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. Nine days later, the World Health Organization confirmed the discovery of a novel coronavirus, later named COVID-19, in Wuhan. This AI-based system used natural language processing and machine learning to extract data from hundreds and thousands of sources such as foreign news reports, statements of official public health organizations, global airline ticketing data, livestock health reports, and population demographics to track, locate and conceptualize infectious disease spread.”

This shows how fast-paced the AI system was when it came to detecting a serious blip on the health radar. Also, it shows the need for such systems to be implemented globally, so that such diseases can be caught at their initial stages, where they can be contained.

Drug Discovery through AI

AI proves to be very powerful when we combine all of its elements, which include machine learning, deep learning and natural language processing. These come together to form the framework for diagnosis and prevention eventually.

Furthermore, the ability of AI to process large amounts of medical data in the least possible time is what makes it way ahead of what was humanly possible before. This gradually leads to the process of treatment and diagnosis.

One such example is of Insilico Medicine,

“Longevity Vision Fund’s portfolio company Insilico Medicine used its AI system to identify thousands of molecules for potential medications for COVID19 in just four days. Furthermore, the company published its updated findings openly so that all the researchers around the world can access the findings and contribute towards combating the pandemic effectively.”

This shows that we are more well-equipped than the past to fight this infection, with all the advancements that we have in this era.

Detecting COVID-19 with AI

Chest X-rays are one way to detect the infection triggered by the novel coronavirus in lungs. But the x-rays alone cannot suffice for the evidence of COVID-19.

Due to the dissimilarity in chest image findings, the x-ray cannot be solely used for detection, but with the support of AI, the hyper-data processing can improve the imagery significantly, making it possible to use the results for conclusive diagnosis.

According to a data scientist, Alex Wong:

“The hope is that the AI can help radiologists to more rapidly and accurately differentiate between COVID-19 infections and other forms of infections, and more importantly, reduce the burden for radiologists but enabling other front-line health workers with less expertise to better make diagnosis,”

Final Thoughts

Once the pandemic is over, and we make our way out of it, we would have created a world, which is far better to deal with future outbreaks.

One country that has achieved the highest standard in doing this is South Korea, which has already faced two huge health crises in the present century, SARS and MERS.

According to Nuria Oliver, a Ph.D. holding data scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“One of the actions South Korea implemented in the wake of past health crises was to digitally prepare for the possibility of a third epidemic. When the coronavirus struck, they already had the infrastructures that many other countries lacked, infrastructures which have probably played a key role in helping them keep the disease at bay,”

The availability and development of breakthrough technologies, along with extraordinary minds in the industry is what gives the world a beacon of hope, that we will be out of this sooner than later.

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