Leveraging Technology to Fight Future Disease Outbreaks

 By Kritika Roy

The year 2020 has been marked by a pandemic novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), that has not only caused sickness and death of millions but also forced many countries to lock their borders. Going forward, there has been a consensus among scientists that this is only a beginning and with changing environment and lifestyle humankind may have to face many more of these outbreaks.[1] Vaccinations and antidote to tackle these diseases is a time-consuming process. Thus, it becomes important to test the viability of different technologies like AI (Artificial Intelligence), Big Data, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), etc. to subdue the spread of outbreaks and augment human capability.

Since the first report of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China has leaned on AI  and data science to track and fight the pandemic. This has also paved the way for technology sector leaders like Huawei, Alibaba, Baidu to multiply its healthcare initiatives.[2] The White House has already announced a collaborative project with tech companies and academics to make maximum research available to the AI researchers so that they could dig deeper through the mountain of information and bring forth patterns and solutions for medical and health experts. This might help to discover treatments or factors that make the virus worse in some cases.[3] India is also set to launch an app that would inform individuals if they came in contact with someone who later tested positive for Covid-19. The app would depend on location data obtained from the infected person’s smartphone. It would also use short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones.[4]

The use of technology effectively can pave the way to improve future response plans. Enumerated below are some key features of different technologies that could be used to curb the impact of an outbreak

Prediction and Detection: Advanced analytics and AI can be employed to augment current efforts to control the spread of infection. The use of Big Data analytics to process huge volumes of data that can offer insights and lead to deeper knowledge about diseases and enable health and government officials to make informed decisions during the evolution of an outbreak. Moreover, these technologies could also be used to predict the hotspot where new diseases could emerge. It has been estimated by scientists that there are approximately 800,000 unknown animal viruses that could infect humans. AI and deep learning could be used to integrate various data about animal population, viruses, human demographics and cultural and social practices to predict future outbreaks. This would aid governments to be prepared beforehand. Considering “time” is a valuable asset during a pandemic outbreak, early detection could ramp up actions to curb the outbreak.[5] Additionally, the technology could be used to integrate travel and population data to predict where and how quickly a particular disease would spread.

After the Ebola outbreak, scientists created a travel census model that was able to correctly predict the exact county in Texas and even the likely hospital where an Ebola case could be found.[6] Canadian start-up BueDot was among the first in the world to identify the emerging risk from Covid-19. Its systems merge varied AI tools with the knowledge of epidemiologists who identified where and how to look for evidence of emerging diseases. This information was based on over 40 pathogen-specific datasets reflecting disease mobility and outbreak potential.[7]

Diagnosis and Response: Rigorous testing is of paramount importance to curtailing fast-spreading viruses. However, it also exposes testers to the infection, putting their lives at risk and further straining a workforce already stretched beyond its limits.[8] In Spain, approximately 12% of the 35,000 diagnosed with the disease were health workers.[9]  AI models can be provided with the data from Covid-19 positive cases as input so as to accelerate the process of diagnostics for physicians. For instance, China’s Baidu has developed a non-contact Infrared sensor powered by AI that can monitor multiple individual’s temperatures and detect a person suspected of having a fever.[10] This technology is currently used in Qinghe Railway Station, Beijing to identify passengers who are potentially infected. This device can examine up to 200 people in one minute without disrupting passenger flow.[11] Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, has also developed an AI-powered diagnosis system that can detect the coronavirus in Computed Tomography (CT) scans of a patient’s chest with 96% accuracy against viral pneumonia cases.[12] And it merely takes 20 seconds for the AI to make the determination while a human takes about 15 minutes to do the same.[13]Spain has also planned to automate tests through robots that would execute 80,000 tests per day.[14]

Accelerating drug development: Treatment and medication, in cases of newly discovered diseases, is a time-consuming process that is laden with trial and errors. AI can be used to examine data from similar viral diseases and then that data could be used to predict which types of vaccines and medicines are most likely to be effective. This can potentially shorten the normal drug discovery and development process by decades and saves hundreds and millions of dollars. In Australia, last year, an AI system developed a vaccine for humans.[15] Benevolent AI is known for using AI systems to build drugs that can fight the world’s toughest diseases and is now assisting in efforts to find treatment for Covid-19.[16] Within weeks of the Corona outbreak, it used its predictive capabilities to propose existing drugs that might be useful.[17] Even Google’s DeepMind division has used its state-of-the-art AI algorithms and its computing power to understand the structure of the proteins that are associated with the Covid-19, and published the findings to help others develop vaccines.[18]

Medical and Basic Supplies: Drone delivery is the safest and the fastest means of ensuring that people have continuous access to medicines and other essential goods while continuing to limit human contact. Additionally, delivering medical samples using drones would also aid in reducing unnecessary human contact during the transport cycle. Zipline, the San Francisco-based UAV manufacturer and logistics services provider, has been employing drones to deliver medical supplies door to door in Ghana and Rwanda.[19]

Identification of non-compliance: Baidu has developed the industry’s first open-source model capable of detecting whether or not individuals are wearing masks in crowded areas. The model has a classification accuracy of about 97.27%.[20] Drones have been employed to guard public places, track non-compliance to quarantine mandates, and for thermal imaging. China has developed a health-monitoring system called the “Health Code” that uses Big Data to identify and access the risk of each person on the basis of their travel history, potential exposure to infected individuals and the time spent in virus hotspots. In accordance with this data, citizens are then allotted colour codes to indicate if they should be quarantined or allowed in public.[21]

Advanced fabrics for Health Workers: As healthcare workers are on the frontline of tackling these deadly viruses, it is important that they are provided with advanced fabrics that ensure long term durable protection. For instance, Sonovia, an Israeli start-up, aims to provide health care workers with face masks and coats made from anti-bacterial and anti-pathogen fabric that rely on metal-oxide nanoparticles.[22]

Tackling Infodemics: Infodemics, is a term that refers to the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation during a crisis that has spread online and has become an impediment to the outbreak response. False and misleading information is dangerous and may cause widespread public reluctance to adopt well-founded infection control measures by health professionals. Earlier this month, a US State Department compiled roughly 2 million, tweets-peddling conspiracy theories about the spread of Covid-19.[23] Facebook has been using AI and keyword analytics to study the pattern of words that can throw light on fake news stories or are flagged as inaccurate by certain users. India reported an exponential rise in misinformation since the outbreak and thus the country launched MyGov Corona helpdesk and WhatsApp chatbot to tackle the issue at hand.[24]

Human-Machine Collaboration: The Way Forward

Today, living through a life-threatening pandemic sparks the question why, despite so many advances in the tech world, humans have continued to be on the frontline of the crisis. Thus, ascertaining that final decision-making responsibility must continue to lie with humans, to guarantee accountability in any system. Technology should be leveraged to augment human capability and, in this case, medical fraternity’s expertise and ability to treat patients effectively and quickly. The contribution of technology towards medical decision-making would benefit countless patients and permit policymakers to make more informed and data-driven decisions. Thus, using technologies in collaboration, one would be better prepared to predict, respond to and recover from the next crisis that threatens the world.



[1] Managing Epidemics: Key Facts about Major Deadly Diseases, WHO, see https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/managing-epidemics-interactive.pdf accessed on 29 March 2020.

[2] Bernard Marr, “Coronavirus: How Artificial Intelligence, Data Science And Technology Is Used To Fight The Pandemic,” Forbes, March 13, 2020, see https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/03/13/coronavirus-how-artificial-intelligence-data-science-and-technology-is-used-to-fight-the-pandemic/#761cc4295f5f accessed on 29 March 2020.

[3] Will Knight, “Researchers Will Deploy AI to Better Understand Coronavirus,” Wired, 17 March 2020, see https://www.wired.com/story/researchers-deploy-ai-better-understand-coronavirus/ accessed on 29 March 2020.

[4] G Seetharaman, “How countries are using technology to fight coronavirus,” The Economic Times, March 29, 2020, see https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/software/how-countries-are-using-technology-to-fight-coronavirus/articleshow/74867177.cms?from=mdr accessed on 30 March 2020.

[5] Steve Bennett, “4 ways government can use AI to track coronavirus,” GCN, March 10, 2020, see  https://gcn.com/articles/2020/03/10/ai-coronavirus-tracking.aspx accessed on 30 March 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] BLueDot, see https://bluedot.global/ accessed on 31 March 2020.

[8] Thomas Macaulay, “Spain plans to use robots to test 80,000 people a day for the coronavirus,” The Next Web, see https://thenextweb.com/neural/2020/03/23/spain-plans-to-use-robots-to-test-80000-people-a-day-for-the-coronavirus/ accessed on 31 March 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alex McFarland, “Baidu’s AI Technology Being Used to Combat Coronavirus,” UNITE.AI, March 13, 2020, see https://www.unite.ai/baidus-ai-technology-being-used-to-combat-coronavirus/ accessed on 01 April 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tristan Greene, “Alibaba’s new AI system can detect coronavirus in seconds with 96% accuracy,” The New Web,  see https://thenextweb.com/neural/2020/03/02/alibabas-new-ai-system-can-detect-coronavirus-in-seconds-with-96-accuracy/ accessed on 01 April 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “How Baidu is bringing AI to the fight against coronavirus,”  MIT Technology Review, March 11, 2020, see https://www.technologyreview.com/s/615342/how-baidu-is-bringing-ai-to-the-fight-against-coronavirus/

[15] Haron Masige, “Australian Researchers Have Just Released The World’s First AI-Developed Vaccine,” Science Alert, July 13, 2019, see https://www.sciencealert.com/the-world-s-first-ai-developed-vaccine-could-prevent-another-horror-flu-season

[16] Justin Stebbing, Anne Phelan and et al., “COVID-19: combining antiviral and anti-inflammatory treatments,” The Lancet, v. 20, n. 4, February 27, 2020, see https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30132-8/fulltext

[17] Peter Richardson, Ivan Griffin and et al., “Baricitinib as potential treatment for 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease,” The Lancet,  v. 395, n. 10223, February 04, 2020, see https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30304-4/fulltext

[18] Tiernan Ray, “Google DeepMind’s effort on COVID-19 coronavirus rests on the shoulders of giants,” ZDNet, March 06, 2020, see https://www.zdnet.com/article/google-deepminds-effort-on-covid-19-coronavirus-rests-on-the-shoulders-of-giants/

[19] Jake Bright, “Drone Delivery Startup Zipline Launches UAV medical Program in Ghana,” Tech Crunch, April 24, 2019, see https://techcrunch.com/2019/04/24/drone-delivery-startup-zipline-launches-uav-medical-program-in-ghana/

[20] See note 6.

[21] See note 2.

[22] Sonovia, see http://sonoviatech.com/

[23] Tony Room, “Millions of tweets peddled conspiracy theories about coronavirus in other countries, an unpublished U.S. report says,” The Washington Post, March 1, 2020, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/02/29/twitter-coronavirus-misinformation-state-department/

[24] Kritti Bhalla, “Indian Govt Launches WhatsApp Bot, Awareness Campaigns For Coronavirus”Inc42, March 20, 2020, see https://inc42.com/buzz/indian-govt-launches-whatsapp-bot-awareness-campaigns-for-coronavirus/