AI may be the way to fight back against the spread of diseases (Photo from CDC)


The coronavirus has been spreading at an alarming rate since its initial outbreak. So far, there have been roughly 305 deaths and more than 14,300 people infected and unfortunately, those numbers keep rising. While doctors and scientists around the world are scrambling to figure out the virus’s origin and how to fight back, many are turning to AI solutions to help them learn more about the mysterious virus.


A lot of the AI technology to fight back against the virus is still a work in progress, such as the Global Virome Project. This is a proposed research effort that looks to develop a genetic and ecological database of viruses found in animal populations that could infect humans. Researchers believe having this information will help them develop new vaccines, drugs, and other preventative methods before the next outbreak occurs. But one tech company that’s currently fighting back is BlueDot.


BlueDot is a Toronto-based health surveillance company that gathers information on diseases from various sources. To help them track outbreaks, they’ve built an AI system that takes billions of pieces of data from sources like airline flight information to make predictions about where diseases could appear next. Using this system, they were able to make an alert about the coronavirus on December 31st. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wouldn’t make its determination until January 6th.


“We are currently using natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) to process vast amounts of unstructured text data, currently in 65 languages, to track outbreaks of over 100 different diseases, every 15 minutes around the clock,” said Kamran Khan, the brain behind BlueDot and infectious disease physician and professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto. He also points out that it would take hundreds of people to get the same results manually, and by then, it could be too late.


Another tracking tool used to help us learn more about the coronavirus is Healthmap. Built by Harvard Medical School professor John Brownstein and his team back in the mid-2000s, it searches for information about new outbreaks from chatrooms, social media, and news reports. It then organizes the gathered data and creates visualizations to show how and where the disease is spreading. In the case of the coronavirus, Healthmap marked the spreading of the virus using colored dots displaying cases reported in a particular location and where higher concentrations of the virus are located. The tool is now being used as a data source in the Early Alerting and Reporting Project, an international collaboration between public health institutions that aim to quickly detect biological threats around the world.


This is only a sample of how AI could help prevent and treat diseases. Scientists and researchers are already thinking about further ways to use this technology. In a letter published in The Lancet, Benevolent AI wrote how it used AI to find a drug that could treat the coronavirus. Insilico Medicine, meanwhile, used AI to identify six new molecules that might reduce the spread of the virus inside the body. With this technology being used in innovative ways, hopefully, it will help us combat this and future outbreaks.


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