The world is dealing with an unforeseen crisis at this moment with the Coronavirus spreading like wildfire across hundreds of countries infecting more than 860,000 people and taking away 42,000 lives so far.
Without any significant breakthrough so far in the quest for an antidote or cure, the magnitude of the affliction has thrown an unprecedented challenge to the medical and healthcare system everywhere, putting the hospitals, doctors, and even medical researchers under a lot of stress and strain. Technology companies, however, have pitched in quickly to help them fight this lopsided battle.
Making researches and testing faster with AI
To understand the spread of the disease, researchers, now, are sequencing both the novel coronavirus and the genomes of people afflicted. But analyzing genomic sequences takes time and computing muscle and any delay in the process will impact the development of vaccines.
Just to give you an idea, 18 years back, when SARS erupted, it took scientists more than a year to complete the virus genome sequencing. But in today’s world of fast-paced innovation, it can be done within half a day, thanks to the increased computing power, as well as the possibilities unleashed by the power of Artificial Intelligence(AI).
Alibaba’s research wing, DAMO Academy has now developed a genome sequencing solution that is five times faster and efficient than other available sequencing solutions. The diagnosis of new Coronavirus takes 14 hours. The simultaneous screening capability for more than 20 people also brings down the averaged time for analyzing each sample from two hours to just half an hour.
Alibaba has also developed AI algorithms to analyze CT scan images which can significantly improve the testing and detection efficacy for COVID-19. The solution can differentiate the coronavirus-infected pneumonia case images from the non-coronavirus-infected pneumonia case images within 20 seconds-making it nearly 60x faster than human detection.
Enabling researchers with powerful compute
Graphics processing unit(GPU) maker, NVIDIA has made its genome-sequencing software, Parabricks available to the researchers at no cost. Parabricks uses GPUs to accelerate by as much as 50x the analysis of sequence data and hence, can slash the time for variant calling on an entire human genome from two days to one hour.
Similarly, HPC and Quantum computing service providers have also come forward. After a request from the Canadian government for solutions to the pandemic across industries, DENSO and Leap2 quantum cloud service provider, D-Wave Systems have joined hands to give researchers across the world unfettered access to the hybrid quantum systems and quantum expertise for solving problems related to the COVID-19.
The open-source software company, SUSE claims that its customers in the pharmaceutical and research space are already using supercomputers to find prevention, treatment and cures for Coronavirus. It is offering medical device manufacturers free services such as support and maintenance for its operating system and container technologies to be embedded in and run their medical devices.
This increased usage of the Internet during the prolonged periods of home quarantine has also become a concern now. Telecom carriers, and Content Delivery Network(CDN) providers are taking all possible steps to avert online gridlocks to ensure that healthcare workers have continual access to the vital digital services they need.
An Indian CDN startup, Nitrogen has made its platform available to the hospitals, and pharmacies so that they continue to perform without any hiccups.
Evaluating virus dispersal risks using AI and simulation
On December 31, 2019, precisely nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted people about the emergence of a novel coronavirus, Canadian AI startup, BlueDot spotted and flagged the unusual pneumonia cases happening in Wuhan and sent out a warning to its customers. BlueDot analyzes a variety of information sources including news reports and flight records to identify, track and forecast disease outbreaks patterns and they use natural language processing and machine learning to do so.
A good understanding of the virus characteristics and the dispersal factors help to control virus persistence. Simulation software can also be used to evaluate the risk of virus dispersal. Dassault Systèmes’ simulation software, SIMULIA XFlow has been used to evaluate the virus dispersal at the Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan, which was built in just 14 days to treat Covid-19 patients. The software helps to simulate virus contamination and diffusion within the hospital’s ventilation system and to counteract the effects of unplanned ventilation risks.
Telemedicine emerges as a viable alternative
Besides taking stringent measures like lockdowns and shutting all the non-essential services to contain the virus spread, the governments are also looking at alternatives like telemedicine and remote care options to reduce strains on hospitals. With a wide array of remote screening, and care options through video conferencing, chatbots, and secure messaging, Telemedicine can be a powerful tool for preventing virus transmissions among medical and health practitioners, and patients.
Eighteen states in the US including Washington DC have enacted emergency regulations already to increase the use of telemedicine to tackle the Coronavirus epidemic. It can be a viable model of healthcare delivery in India too, where the challenge before the healthcare system is two-fold: First, the country’s dense population, and second, an abysmal doctor-patient ratio. The healthcare system is already strained and we cannot afford any further exposures of the healthcare practitioners and patients alike.
Increased research collaboration with video conferencing and AI
Alibaba is now providing a video conferencing platform with real-time multi-language translation to the medical experts all over the world for sharing their experience of fighting COVID-19.
Hospitals around the world can conduct video conferences to exchange experiences and seek remote consultations with Chinese hospitals. The exchange of information can help others in adopting timely prevention and control measures and even embrace the best approach for treating patients and thus minimizing the damages to a great extent.
Over 440 medical institutions from 104 countries have joined this International Medical Expert Communication Platform so far.
Robots become the trusted aides to health workers
Earlier this month, China Mobile, cloud robotics systems maker, CloudMinds, and Wuchang Hospital came together for a trial run of a robot-staffed hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of China’s Coronavirus outbreak. The idea was to relieve the exhausted medical practitioners and healthcare workers.
Similarly, hospitals and airports are using robots and robotic automation to monitor patients and disinfect facilities. In one Chinese hospital, robots are being used to deliver medicine and collect bed sheets and rubbish. Xenex says its devices are currently being used to clean rooms at facilities with suspected cases. A robot called Little Peanut was reportedly transporting food to patients quarantined in a hotel. The maker of GermFalcon, a germ-killing robot developed to sanitize airplanes has also offered to help to provide its services to three airports in the US.
Back home, mask-clad humanoid robots were seen dispensing sanitizers, distributing masks and raising awareness in Kerala. The trial was done by a startup, Asimov Robotics. Similarly, a government hospital in Rajasthan has also been using humanoid robots on a trial basis for delivering food and medicine to the infected patients.
These are just a couple of examples to show the immense possibilities that can be unleashed by technology today for the greater good. The Coronavirus crisis has opened up a historic opportunity for the technology companies to rethink their innovation strategies and look at more flexible, nimble and frugal ways to develop solutions. Hopefully, they will take a cue from this crisis and act on it quickly.