AI Against Pandemics – The Algorithm that Helped Contain the Coronavirus

Globalization has its perks. Hop on a plane and go nearly anywhere in the world at any time. Sell your products and services to the 4.5 billion digital citizens, instead of the few thousand or million in your area. But one thing that globalization doesn’t help is the spread of infections and disease.

At any given time, our planes are transporting more than 1.2 million people and likely 10 times more cargo, products, and produce. That’s why in the case of the coronavirus officials were quick to quarantine a zone that encompasses 8 cities and 35 million people.

While globalization may intensify the spread of disease, our digital actions could accelerate our ability to find and contain diseases.

AI Epidemic Discovery 

Because we’re people that like to share things on the Internet, we often publish, search, or share things that could signal and track whether or not we have a given disease.

One of the first projects of this kind was Google Flu Trends. It was created with the CDC under the hypothesis that people who were getting sick would Google search their symptoms, which could be analyzed to locate infectious diseases.

Unfortunately, Google Flu Trends failed because it was hard to take into account changes in search behavior, the changing landscape of Google’s search engine itself, as well as the immense nature of this data project made it difficult to differentiate unrelated flu searches from actual cases.

Ultimately, they publicly closed the doors on the project after underestimating the severity of the 2013 flu season by 140 percent.

Flash forward to 2020 and we’re seeing a similar hypothesis but with better results.

BlueDot is a health-monitoring platform that was able to notify their clients about a possible epidemic outbreak in China 9 days before the World Health Organization and 6 days before the CDC did. You read that correctly. A small healthcare firm in Canada knew about the Wuhan coronavirus before the international agencies could. How?

BlueDot designed an algorithm that scours foreign-language news reports, animal and plant disease networks, and official proclamations to give its clients advance warning to avoid danger zones like Wuhan.

“We can pick up news of possible outbreaks, little murmurs or forums or blogs of indications of some kind of unusual events going on,” says Kamran Khan, BlueDot’s founder and CEO.

Once the automated data-sifting is complete, human analysis takes over, Khan says. Epidemiologists check that the conclusions make sense from a scientific standpoint, and then a report is sent to government, business, and public health clients.

Eric Niiler, Wired

BlueDot’s AI Epidemiologist appears to be on a better track than Google Flu Trends. And their swift response may have saved an indeterminable number of lives. However, its longevity still remains to be seen.

There is, of course, another camp of technologies that promote the prevention of epidemics.

Prevention Technologies

welloStationX – Wello Inc. has created a “Barrier Technology” that measures a person’s temperature before they enter a healthcare facility, school, jail, or workplace. People don’t always know they’re carriers and body temperature is an indicator we can key in on. The wellStationX can measure elevated temperatures without contact with the person, thus creating the first layer of defense against the spread.

GLEAMviz – I’ve talked in great detail about the importance of digital maps to represent Geospatial information. Disease outbreak is included in this. GLEAMviz produces realistic simulations of the global spread of infectious diseases onto visual maps. It assists in studying and predicting how a given disease may spread. Similarly, Flowminder uses cell phone data to map and predict the spread of infectious diseases.

Liquid Guard – They’ve created a permanent antimicrobial spray that can simultaneously kill not just disease-causing bacteria but mold, fungi, and viruses. It is designed to both decorate and disinfect homes, businesses, airplanes, and healthcare settings. The paint shows special promise for fighting so-called “superbugs,” antibiotic-resistant microbes that infect hospital surfaces and cause an estimated 88,000 deaths annually in the United States.

If you’re interested in reading more on these pandemic-stopping technologies, John Hopkins and the Center for Health Security created a report about the 15 Technologies to Address GCBR (Global Catastrophic Biological Risks). The report highlights emerging technology ranging from self-spreading vaccines to drone treatments.