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Has AI been the key to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Nikolas Kairinos

In 2020, the global healthcare industry faced the biggest public health challenge of a generation. While the COVID-19 pandemic is reminiscent of public health emergencies like SARS and Ebola, the scale and reach of this pandemic brought us into completely new terrain – and with it, raised important questions about how we can effectively manage such crises.

The speed at which the virus spread left consumers, businesses and governments reeling. In the quest to find answers, researchers diverted their full attention and resources towards modelling the likely spread of the virus, and the impact different measures might have on suppressing the spread of the virus.

So, how did we go about attempting to bring COVID-19 under control? The healthcare sector became increasingly reliant on the help of technology to offer timely solutions. Artificial intelligence, or AI, has already provided the answer to many of the daily problems that we encounter.

From helping children learn better by enlisting tailored, AI-powered teaching assistants, to helping us be smarter about our energy consumption at home and in our offices, intelligent solutions have often come to our rescue to make our lives easier. And now, AI has also offered solutions for the coronavirus crisis.

Combined with ongoing research, intelligent solutions are making it faster, easier and cheaper not only to understand how the virus spreads, but also how to manage it.

AI companies around the world have been racing to develop new tools that can be used to arm ourselves against the novel coronavirus, and minimise the overall disruption that it will cause. Below are a few key ways that AI has proven essential to our success.

Containing the spread

Leading companies in the field have been working closely with the healthcare sector to explore innovative solutions that could not only slow the spread of the virus, but offer enhanced treatments and ultimately protect populations from the disease.

The potential of AI to aid in this particular battle was difficult to ignore. Indeed, a World Health Organization report released in February 2020 highlighted the important role that artificial intelligence and big data played in China’s initial response to the outbreak.

The same report revealed that these new technologies were applied to ‘strengthen contact tracing and [manage] priority populations’ that were most at risk from infection. In an effort to quickly curb the spread of the disease, provinces in China capitalised on technology to face up to the challenge of containing the outbreak.

If there is one thing AI excels in, it is analysing and uncovering patterns in huge swathes of data. This is precisely what makes it the perfect tool for modelling and tracking the distribution of the coronavirus.

Facebook provides an example of how this ability was utilised in practice. In the early stages of the outbreak, it announced a ‘suite of global disease prevention maps, as well as a survey tool for identifying coronavirus hotspots’.

In short, it worked on sharing anonymised data about people’s movements through mapping software, which enabled Facebook to generate accurate population density estimates and offer a clear picture of where, and when, people were congregating.

Such information has been valuable for researchers forecasting how COVID-19 could make its way through different regions and demographics, and has also aided decision-makers in implementing the policies with the best chance of reducing the virus’s proliferation – for instance, by closing certain areas like parks where people were being seen to gather.

Such tools are not only useful for tracing the spread of the virus, but also for allocating medical resources more effectively. The World Bank has employed these maps to determine which areas and populations are served by different hospitals, and then used this information to inform strategies that would best serve people’s medical needs.

Diagnosing the virus

In order to be able to effectively control the virus, the first step is to know who has it, who has already overcome it (and what symptoms they did or did not present with), and who has never been infected. It is difficult to even imagine the sheer scale of testing that is required for such a mission.

Luckily, we can again thank the helping hand of technology. With frontline physicians under considerable strain to test and treat patients suspected of – or currently battling – COVID-19, we needed a better way to diagnose patients.

HealthTech companies rose to the challenge to create solutions to this problem: Infervision, for instance, a Beijing-based AI company, launched the Coronavirus AI solution which is specifically tailored to help clinicians detect
and monitor the virus more efficiently.

By using its algorithm to locate the virus on images of patients’ lungs, as distinct from other respiratory infections, it minimises the burden on medical practitioners and assists them in making quick and informed judgments. This system greatly improves turnaround speeds and prevents imaging departments from having to wait hours to receive the results of CT scans.

Further examples are not hard to come by. Chinese tech giant Alibaba, for instance, developed its own AI system for diagnosing the virus. According to the company, this new system can detect the coronavirus with 96% accuracy – even more impressively, according to reports it only takes 20 seconds for the AI to make a determination. This is compared with an average speed of 15 minutes for human clinicians.

Finding a cure

Data scientists and researchers require tools that will help them find relevant insights among masses of historical data and pieces of research which can then be used to find or create new drugs to tackle the virus. That’s where AI comes in.

AI companies have been aiding and abetting the race to find a treatment for COVID-19; not only can intelligent algorithms help determine the necessary attributes of the drug, they can also uncover whether drugs previously used for other treatments could be an effective cure for this virus.

UK-based BenevolentAI is just one such company that has used AI and machine learning to aid drug discovery. The company employed these technologies to search through its extensive database of existing approved drugs, looking
for one that could be repurposed in order to help tackle the coronavirus. In doing so, the company could remove the necessity of creating a completely new treatment, and ultimately speed up the process of finding the cure.

The potential of AI within this domain was closely monitored even before this outbreak. Earlier studies have suggested that AI can get new drugs to clinical trials five times faster, while bringing down industry costs by almost a third (30%). The novel coronavirus has shaped up to be the perfect test to see how this technology can help pharma companies bring new drugs to market.

Other medical AI companies have been utilising deep learning models to search for new molecules that can combat the virus and provide a viable treatment. If it transpires that the necessary compounds to tackle COVID-19 do not already exist, then this will accelerate the pursuit for entirely new molecules to use.

Time is of the essence in the battle to fight the outbreak, and the ability of technology to speed up these processes will prove essential.

Looking to the coming months and years

To the layperson, the novel coronavirus presents an almost unsurmountable challenge for healthcare providers, medical researchers, and the policymakers who are tasked with ensuring that minimal damage is caused by the outbreak. There is hope that the gravity of the challenges ahead might just be reduced through the help of artificial intelligence and other new technologies.

However, we must not get ahead of ourselves – it goes without saying that the appropriate long-term response to the virus will take time and patience. AI is not a silver bullet solution, and we must be realistic about its current capabilities.

That said, there is no doubt that it has helped us better our understanding of what we are up against, and how we can find the solution to overcome this pandemic. Already, the foundations have been laid for AI to pave the way for us to reduce future transmissions – and find the right answer to eradicating the virus.

Nikolas Kairinos is the founder and CEO of Soffos, and the founder of

17th August 2020

Nikolas Kairinos is the founder and CEO of Soffos, and the founder of

17th August 2020


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