Harnessing tech to combat pandemics
How digital technologies such AI and data science can help governments mitigate threats
The outbreak of Covid-19 differs from other 21st-century coronavirus epidemics such as SARS and MERS.
So how does one control the spread of this pandemic, where the global total has now topped 600,000, with numbers rising rapidly in in Europe and the US? And is there a role for information technology in containing its spread?
Artificial intelligence (AI), telemedicine, remote patient monitoring and consumer-facing AI-based chatbots are some of the digital tools that governments are turning to contain COVID-19 outbreak in their countries. An oft-cited AI example is of Canadian firm BlueDot’s early-warning system, which alerted the company’s customers about Covid-19 at the end of December even before the WHO. The system uses AI, including natural-language processing and machine learning, to track over 100 infectious diseases by analysing about 100,000 articles in 65 languages every day.
Epidemic risk modelling firm Metabiota had determined that Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan had the highest risk of seeing Covid-19 show up more than a week before cases were reported partially by looking to flight data.
Nikkei’s Asian Review had reported that Alibaba’s AI-based system could detect coronavirus in CT scans of patients with an accuracy of up to 96 per cent in less than 20 seconds. Apart from detection, AI-based algorithms are being used in tandem with clinical-grade sensors to remotely monitor patients who have already been diagnosed with Covid-19 or who are suspected of being infected in order to support clinical decision-making. AI-based chatbots have been launched to answer frequent questions posed by the public about Covid-19 about symptoms, hygiene measures and treatment procedures, and in some cases, even connect them to remote doctors.
Telehealth systems can help critical patients get the treatment they need without endangering doctors. In January, Chinese firms ZTE and China Telecom joined hands to build a 5G-based remote consultation system for diagnosis and treatment of patients in Wuhan, the epidemic’s epicentre. Chinese firms have also harnessed blockchain-based applications to combat the virus. For example, Alipay-owned insurance firm Xiang Hu Bao is using blockchain to process coronavirus claims to reduce back and forth paperwork. Alipay also developed an app that allows users to track allocation and donation of relief supplies, as well as the review, recording and tracing of supply chains of medical supplies.
In the 21st century, epidemics are becoming a fact of life. In such a scenario, information technology could serve as a force multiplier to the government’s efforts to contain and eliminate epidemics.