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COVID-19 and New Age Technology

Dr. Harish Pillai is Chief Executive Officer, Aster India, Bengaluru.
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  • May 01, 2020

    Humanity is much better prepared in 2020 to mitigate to a degree the loss in life and collateral economic damage resulting from a pandemic. Some good work has been demonstrated globally through the deployment of new-age tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, machine learning, neural networks and internet of things.

    A Toronto-based AI firm ‘BlueDot’ had identified the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Wuhan in China by December 31, almost nine days before the Chinese agencies or the World Health Organisation (WHO) made any official announcement.1 It used AI and machine learning models and data from a wide range of sources including news outlets, airline ticketing trends, demographic data like population density and age stratification, microclimate models, infectious disease trends, etc. BlueDot correctly predicted the spread of the virus to cities within China and the neighbouring countries. Similarly, a firm called ‘Metabiota’, based in San Francisco, had used AI, machine learning, big data and natural language processing (NLP) algorithms to study the social media trends to predict correctly the spread of COVID-19 to countries such as Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea even before a single case appeared in these regions.2 In comparison to all previous epidemics or pandemics, it is clear that AI is at the forefront of accurately predicting in advance the onset of the next pandemic, which it is said is inevitable.

    Another firm called ‘Insilico Medicine’, based in Maryland, too employed AI to search vast databases of existing drugs to identify those molecules that could be used for the treatment of COVID-19 patients within just four days.3 Such incredible computing power is providing the urgently required medical ammunition to the frontline healthcare workers in treating very sick patients. It is also clear that the employment of AI programmes has created a new speed benchmark in key milestones towards the discovery of a new COVID vaccine. It is expected that this vaccine may be available for mass use anywhere within the next nine to 15 months. Scientists working at Flinders University, Australia have used advanced cloud computing and AI modelling in addition to state-of-the-art manufacturing to develop a candidate COVID-19 vaccine4 that could be fast-tracked for animal experiments and possible human trials in the United States.

    One of the recent technology-related breaking news stories was the meeting of the tech giants - Facebook, Apple and Google and their discussions with the WHO to create an interoperable application programming interface (API) that will enable accessing data and communication with validated public health apps. This new feature will be available on Google and Apple IOS stores for downloading from May this year.5 Similarly, ‘Fitbit’, a San Francisco-based company known for fitness and activity tracker products, could play a crucial role in identifying patterns of resting heart rates and sleep cycles to predict a geographical pattern.6 Another San Francisco-based smart thermometer manufacturer – ‘Kinsa’, which connects with a smartphone using blue tooth is able to visually aggregate fever patterns across a country based on the total number of smart thermometers available per capita in the population.7 This will greatly aid public health authorities in monitoring infectious clusters in real-time.

    With the massive surge in 24x7 news coverage and social media, panic-stricken people began calling hospital helplines to seek proper information, and soon these phone lines became overwhelmed necessitating several Indian hospital chains to launch AI-based chatbots that had legitimate content and aided in navigating through commonly asked questions. Smart symptom check tools were also launched to relieve unnecessary mental tension. Within overwhelmed hospitals, various smart technologies have been deployed to assist the human caregivers. The AI-based computed tomography (CT) scan reading technologies have cut down the CT-based COVID-19 diagnosis from the earlier six minutes to just 20 seconds.8

    In late February, Chinese technology giant Alibaba Group announced an AI algorithm from its research unit, DAMO Academy, that can diagnose suspected cases within 20 seconds with 96 per cent accuracy. The algorithm is being used in 26 hospitals in China, where it has already helped diagnose more than 30,000 cases.9 The draconian success of the lockdown in China to reduce community-based transmission was greatly due to the deployment of a vast array of facial recognition technology in closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras along with mobile apps and drones to identify and isolate suspect cases. The same lessons are now being used in countries like Singapore, Korea, Turkey and Russia. Chinese drones have identified and sprayed disinfectants in sensitive zones and also used infrared technology to detect the surface skin temperature of individuals within its range.

    Within India, the use of Aarogya Setu mobile app launched by the government on April 2 helps users identify whether they are at risk of COVID-19 infection.10 This contact tracing app is a technological innovation that helps to speed up the process and keep pace with the extraordinary speed of transmission of the virus. This app is connected to a central server that updates any time a person is identified as COVID positive and notifies not just the phone contact list but also uses the global positioning system (GPS) for locating the smartphone and creating a spatial description of the hotspot based on AI algorithms. Police forces in various Indian states have also successfully deployed drones to ensure the effectiveness of the lockdown.

    India has the potential to leverage its large pool of gifted human resources and state-of-the-art infrastructure spread across several institutions to establish a manufacturing ecosystem that produces all vital and strategic healthcare equipment, and to incubate healthcare IT start ups that will aid in combating both pandemics and the annual seasonal disease clusters.

    Institutions like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), along with leading private sector biotech and manufacturing units, should come together on a mission mode to accomplish this. There is a ready concept template from the short and long-term monsoon forecasts made by the India Meteorological Department (IMD). The question is, could such complex data algorithms be used to predict the next pandemic?

    In conclusion, despite the staggering human and economic losses, humanity overall is much better equipped today to prepare itself well in advance for the next pandemic, all thanks to the AI.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.