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Artificial Intelligence

Does AI hold the key to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Fountech
April 23, 2020

There are few shared experiences that humans have lived through on a global scale that compare with the current coronavirus pandemic. The virus has spread rapidly across the world, impacting consumers, businesses and governments alike, decisively upending our established routines and habits.  

While the coronavirus may be reminiscent of prior public health emergencies like SARS and Ebola, the scale and reach of this pandemic has brought us into new terrain. So, how do we go about bringing COVID-19 under control?

You might not be surprised to hear that Fountech.ai’s answer lies in arming ourselves with intelligent technologies like AI. Leading companies in the field are already working closely with the public sector to explore innovative solutions that could slow the spread of the virus, offer enhanced healthcare, and ultimately protect populations from the disease.

The potential of artificial intelligence to aid in this battle is hard to ignore – indeed, a World Health Organisation report in February highlighted the important role that AI and big data played in China’s response to the outbreak.

Modelling and tracking data

If there is one thing that AI excels in, it is analysing and finding patterns in huge swathes of data. That’s what makes it the perfect tool for modelling and tracking the distribution of the coronavirus; in other words, AI can be used to strengthen contact tracing, allowing easier management of priority populations that are most at risk from infection.

Facebook, for one, is working on sharing anonymised data about people’s movements which could be used to help control the spread of the virus. Such information can help researchers forecast how COVID-19 will make its way through different regions and demographics, and help decision makers implement policies that would most effectively safeguard public health.

Diagnosing the virus

To be able to control the virus, we must know who currently has it, who has overcome it, and who has never been infected. The sheer scale of testing required to examine everybody in a country is almost unconceivable.

Thankfully, that’s where AI can help. The outbreak has put frontline physicians under considerable pressure, which is why companies like Infervision have launched the novel solutions to offer support. In this case, the Coronavirus AI solution is specifically tailored to help clinicians detect and monitor the disease more efficiently; instead of imaging departments having to wait hours to receive CT results, this system is vastly improving CT diagnosis speeds.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech giant Alibaba has also developed an AI system for diagnosing the coronavirus. The company claims that the new system can detect the virus in CT scans with 96% accuracy, with the potential for efficiency gains equally impressive – according to reports, it only takes 20 seconds for the AI to make a determination, compared to an average of 15 minutes for humans.

Developing a cure

The race to find a coronavirus has also been aided and abetted by AI. Professor Andrew Hopkins, the chief executive of British startup Exscienta, which became the first company to put an AI-designed drug molecule to human trials earlier this year, believes that this technology will assist researchers in three ways.

Firstly, it could be used to rapidly develop antibodies and vaccines. As time is of the essence in the battle to fight the spread, the ability of technology to speed up this process will prove essential.

Secondly, he believes that AI can be used to scan through existing drugs to see if any could be repurposed – in doing so, we could limit the amount of time and resources devoted to creating novel treatments.

And finally, AI can be employed to design a drug to fight both the current, and any future, coronavirus outbreaks.

It goes without saying that an appropriate response to the virus will take time and patience. While AI can make it easier and faster to understand how to manage the virus and contain its devastating effects, we must also be realistic about its capabilities and remember that it is not a silver bullet solution.

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