The world is currently living through one of the worst pandemics of the century. Since the first reported case in Wuhan, China, of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is now known, the virus has spread to 166 countries with the number of global COVID-19 cases exceeding 614K . The virus that is known to cause a pneumonia-like illness and severe respiratory distress in its patients, has claimed more than 30, 000 lives till date.
Although we have seen equally dangerous epidemics in the past, be it Ebola, Zika, AIDS or even SARS, it is the sheer rapidity and scale of the Corona spread that has had the world on edge. When it comes to infectious diseases such as these, monitoring the outbreak right from the start and preventing it from spreading any further, goes a long way in containing its impact. However, trying to do so poses a huge challenge for the public health authorities as it requires a large amount of information to be gathered in real-time and analyzed quickly in order to come up with an effective combat strategy.
Although there are traditional methods such as studying hospital records or looking at investigation reports, these aren’t much help for prediction and can be painfully slow and unable to help us quickly coordinate a response.
Another challenge while trying to contain highly infectious diseases such as the coronavirus is figuring out how to maintain a safe distance from the infected parties while still effectively tending to them medically.
What offers solace though is the fact that we are now in possession of powerful data analytics tools and AI technology that helps us survive an outbreak, predict its spread and in turn minimize its impact. This explains why China, in the case of COVID-19, has banked heavily on its efficient technologies, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), in order to track and fight the pandemic. Be it big data, predictive analytics tools or even AI powered service robots, technology plays a huge role in tracking the pandemic, assessing its spread, and working towards its containment.
A modern response to epidemics involves harnessing different types of real-time data and enable evidence-based decision-making. Recent advances in data science have led to the emergence of outbreak analytics.
Outbreak analytics involves the gathering of all available data related to an epidemic. This data includes confirmed cases, fatalities, test results, tracing contacts of infected people, maps of population densities and demographics, traveler flows and migration, availability of health-care services, drug stockpiles and other factors.
This raw data is then analyzed with machine learning algorithms to identify patterns and trends.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists are currently using outbreak analytics to forecast the number of potential cases that can arise in an exposed population. This data is then being used to ensure hospitals are equipped with sufficient resources.
Developing a vaccine for the Coronavirus requires a thorough analysis of the virus’ RNA. However the rapidly mutating nature of this virus makes RNA analysis and vaccine development very difficult.
Scientists and medical teams across the globe are currently using Baidu’s Linearfold algorithm to overcome this challenge. Baidu’s algorithm is 120 times faster than a traditional RNA folding algorithm in predicting the virus’s secondary RNA structure and reduced the overall analysis time from 55 minutes to 27 seconds.
Access to a quick RNA structure analysis can significantly bring down the time needed to develop a stable vaccine, saving the lives of thousands of human beings.
AI is also being used to predict the coronovirus’s RNA (Ribonucleic acid) structure as well as scan approved drug databases for similar illnesses in order to determine potential medication that might also work against COVID-19.
By deeply analyzing the treatment that every COVID-19 patient receives, AI can help identify the best treatment strategies. AI is being used to study 30 million patients to identify people and communities at highest risk of COVID-19 on the basis of more than 5,000 variables. Organizations and governments are using AI to create lists of people who should be contacted pro-actively to warn them about their vulnerability so health providers can create a care plan for them.
Artificial intelligence in the form of automated disease surveillance platforms, is helping process data that is already available online from public health organizations, population databases and transport records to track its spread and the number of cases worldwide. The technology uses a blend of machine learning and natural language processing to report the spread of COVID-19 in real-time.
For anyone who has been following all the COVID-19 updates closely, we know that social distancing is a key factor in preventing the infection from spreading. While for the majority of us, it may be easy to do so, certain roles like that of doctors, nurses, sanitation workers etc., play a huge role right on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Posed with this scenario, many technology companies in China developed thermal camera-equipped drones and AI-powered robots to be used in areas where proximity with a patient is inevitable. These robots were extensively used to deliver food to patients in the hospital as well as to disinfect high-risk areas.
With the help of facial recognition technology and temperature detection software, we can identify people who might not be following protocol such as wearing a mask, for example, or the ones who might have a fever and be likely to have the virus.
In China, the government has developed the ‘Health Tracking Code’, a monitoring system that uses big data and analytics to assess the risk each individual poses or is faced with based on their geographical location, their travel history etc.
Recently, the insurance regulator of India has asked insurers to cover Covid-19 cases in their existing policies as well as ensure that such claims are attended to on priority. Given how rampantly the virus is spreading, the number of insurance claims are bound to grow exponentially. Hence, developing AI-enabled applications that can quickly register and process claims can help reduce the burden and the risk of having the insurance agents handle them with face-to-face interactions with the patients and hospital staff.
A crucial aspect of controlling a pandemic is contact tracing, i.e., establishing how the infection has spread and predicting where and how it may spread further. In this regard, authorities are harnessing the power of big data analytics to study various pieces of information such as a patient’s travel history and who they came in contact with in order to establish the chain of transmission, and what needs to be done to contain it. AI is also being used to process large amounts of unstructured data such as travel data, data collected from social media, personal information such as family history, lifestyle habits etc. to predict which types of populations may be most at risk.
Especially in the case of China, it was big data analytics that greatly helped the authorities establish the chain of transmission of the virus. Authorities can also use big data gleaned from social media and search engine activity to build predictive models that will give an insight into how the virus may spread further.
Advanced AI algorithms can be used to deep dive into drug research and provide insights that will aid the development of drugs to fight lethal pandemics. Google’s DeepMind division for example, used its latest AI algorithms to identify the proteins that might make up the coronavirus, so that based on this information, an effective treatment could be developed.
AI’s predictive capabilities can also come in handy when trying to identify existing drugs that might be useful in treating new diseases such as COVID-19.
In these trying times, when social distancing has become the new norm, providing people with an option to access crucial information and health consultation services quickly, can be extremely beneficial. One way we can do so is by deploying chatbots for service providers in the medical, travel and insurance industries to ensure that people are able to find information and resolve issues quickly, from the relative safety of their homes.
Artificial Intelligence and big data analytics has revolutionized many functions and industries, by providing organizations with novel ways to understand and interact with their data, physical assets and workforce. Now, in the times of COVID-19 and beyond, we should learn to use AI and big data to predict, identify and better contain infectious diseases. This, in conjunction with radical preventive measures like social distancing and quarantines may be our best bet in fighting pandemics much more effectively.
Acuvate helps organizations implement custom big data and AI solutions using various Microsoft technologies. If your organization is actively involved in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and needs help in leveraging modern technologies, please feel free to connect us!