COVID-19: Necessity Breeds Innovation


These are extraordinary times. Today, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 surpasses 350,000 with the death toll over 15,000, nearly all countries of the world are impacted by the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 is to COVID-19 as HIV is to AIDS. Working in innovation, I ask myself, “If this coronavirus is novel then what novel steps is humanity taking to tackle this issue?”

Computing Innovation Reduces Time-to-Value

Last week, the White House called upon artificial intelligence researchers to help with the treatment and prevention of this illness. Over 44,000 scholarly articles about COVID-19 have been made public including an AI challenge on Kaggle to crunch all of those articles to answer questions such as “What do we know about the virus’ genetics, origin, and evolution?”

This is not the first time that we have seen computers help us take important steps in medicine.  In late February, MIT researchers used artificial intelligence to identify a new antibiotic that can kill many antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  This represents a notable change in how pharmaceutical research is done.  There is much promise in using computational power to improve global health.

Tackling the Problem with Software

Across the globe, brilliant minds at large and small organizations are dedicating themselves to the issue.  Yesterday, a supercomputing system was launched to help researchers find treatments, and possibly a vaccine for COVID-19. This brings together resources from not only national laboratories and several universities, but also IBM, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft in this never-before-seen collaboration among corporate competitors for epidemiology and molecular modeling.  The supercomputer system has since helped to identify potential drug compounds that could stop the virus from infecting host cells.

Entrepreneurs are also racing to find treatments using machine learning.  The startup EVQLV, based out of New York, specializes not only in machine learning, but also molecular biology, pharmacology, and antibody design.  Putting in 100-hour work weeks into their AI, they hope to reduce the expected time to discover a treatment for COVID-19 down to having one ready by the end of this year.  Canadian biotech firm AbCellera, which also specializes in machine learning and therapeutic antibody discovery, has discovered hundreds of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in just 11 days.  They have partnered with pharmaceutical leader Eli Lilly to distribute the treatment once it’s ready.

The race to find a treatment is not limited to North America.  Chinese technology giants Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and others have similarly applied their computational leadership in launching technology aimed at diagnosing cases and finding a vaccine.  Firms in South Korea, France, Hong Kong, and Britain have also applied artificial intelligence in search of drugs that might treat COVID-19.

Tackling the Problem with Hardware

Flu and immunization campaigns are often a key component of occupational health practices. Edge-computing is often used to detect problems early stage or in real-time.  Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) have prototyped a system that can detect an outbreak of the flu and flu-related illnesses (like COVID-19) using a thermal camera, a microphone, and a mini-computer running an AI model.  The relatively inexpensive components mean that this system can be distributed globally as an early warning system that can save lives much like the tsunami warning system is used to limit the loss of life in the event of an earthquake.  Similarly, researchers at Oxford University have recommended an app to track COVID-19 cases in order to reduce its spread.  Additionally, emergency workers in San Francisco are wearing rings that will track their vital signs such as body temperature as an early warning system. Wearables and mobile devices significantly reduce the lag from an event occurring to when the system can respond.  This is important for any front-line worker, including medical staff.

EHS research firm Verdantix has frequently mentioned the potential impacts that technology can have on health and safety, such as use of drones to conduct site inspections.  In fact, drone applications were highlighted in their International Innovation Awards in 2019. Companies like Amazon and Uber have been forging a path for the use of drones in retail. For global health, and especially in times of a pandemic, drones can be used as a delivery mechanism to not only provide food to those in quarantine, but also to deliver medicine.  Additionally, they might be able to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers who could refuse to work without it.  Imagine a medical system where those who carry medicine are not only immune to the disease, but are also 10x more numerous, require no breaks, and never get lost.

As of Thursday last week, at least 13 doctors in Italy have died as a result of combating COVID-19.  In some places in Italy, over 20% of family doctors are either sick or in quarantine.  Doctors have also died due to COVID-19 in other countries including France, Indonesia, and China. To prevent this tragedy from worsening, machines can be deployed to hospitals and other health facilities in order to reduce the risk of transmission.  For example, robots can be used to gather old bed sheets and dispose of medical waste.  Robots can also disinfect contaminated areas.  Most importantly, robots can perform ultrasounds, take mouth swabs, and listen to a patient’s organs like how a doctor would using a stethoscope.  The last example demonstrates that robots do not have to be entirely autonomous.  It is an example of telemedicine/telehealth where medical professionals control the machine remotely.  Those in the safety practice might be familiar with this concept for assisting lone workers.

The Next Generation of Health Systems

When the world emerges from this pandemic, it will have changed significantly.  We have seen how quickly a single illness can spread given how connected our world is these days.  The world of the future will need health systems that can react quicker than ever before.  In order to do so, applied artificial intelligence will be a necessity because of the volumes, velocity, and variety of data that must be processed, because it enables global collaboration, and because it enables rapid proliferation of the solutions.  AI will change how humanity addresses global health.  It will help with prediction, diagnosis, and treatment.In the face of a historically significant pandemic, people from all parts of the world are using the latest forms of innovation to fight for a common cause.  Although a virus like this is unprecedented in recent times, so too are the tools at our disposal.

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