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How AI and Data Science Are Being Used To Fight The Pandemic

It was first identified in 2019 in Wuhan, China and by March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared it a global pandemic. COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has brought cities and entire countries to a grinding halt and created a socio-economic stir that has had massive repercussions around the globe.  As the number of cases rises and the death toll mounts, researchers have been looking at utilizing the advancements in data science and artificial intelligence to support the fight against this global pandemic.

From crunching vast amounts of data to finding new drugs, in this article, we look at how AI and data science are aiding the fight against coronavirus and other epidemics.

Forecast Epidemic Outbreaks


In December 2019, BlueDot, a Toronto-based Canadian AI startup alerted the government and the private sector about a “cluster of unusual pneumonia cases” in Wuhan, China. This was, nine days before WHO and CDC alerted people of the emergence of a novel coronavirus. The platform used AI, machine learning and Big Data to predict the outbreak and its spread. 


Like the BlueDot, companies such as Stratifyd and Metabiota have been using machine learning to predict global outbreaks of infectious diseases. While they may not be able to contain an outbreak, these AI systems can predict where the disease will spread, its impact, thus helping governments prepare for epidemic outbreaks.

Assist in the Race for a Vaccine


The only way out of the dire situation is to find a vaccine. Unfortunately, developing a vaccine is a tedious process that takes years and billions of dollars. This can be reduced drastically using AI and machine learning in healthcare.

As the disease started spreading and causing havoc in China and other parts of the world, Google’s DeepMind introduced a cutting-edge system known as AlphaFold which is used to predict the 3D structure of a protein, based on its genetic sequence. Once this sequence is identified, researchers can develop drugs and nucleic acid vaccines that can be injected into the human cells to stimulate an immune response. Pathologists are using the data generated by AlphaFold and other AI systems to zero in on the compounds needed for the rapid development of a vaccine for COVID-19.

Develop Drugs to Fight Diseases


Even before the recent pandemic, pharmaceutical companies had been rapidly embracing AI models in healthcare for its ability to effectively address the ever-changing needs of drugs for those who suffer from everyday viruses to complex diseases. From streamlining research and development efforts to identifying personalized medicines and forecasting potential responses, AI-driven drug discovery has helped in cutting costs and decreasing the time needed for new drug discovery.

Once such AI startup, Benevolent AI, which has been supporting the creation of new drugs for complex diseases using its vast predictive capabilities, is now helping in the fight against Coronavirus by discovering drugs that are able to block the viral replication process of SARS-CoV-2.

Automating Monitoring Processes


With the cases mounting at a rapid speed, the diagnosis of patients must be done as soon as possible. With the limitation of medical personnel and resources, AI-equipped machines can help in the quick detection of COVID-19. Large healthcare systems are also using AI solutions to maintain and regulate the flow of visitors to hospitals.

Moreover, AI monitoring tools with thermal sensors can be set up at railway stations, airports and other public places to scan, detect people with high body temperatures and quarantine the suspects who might be COVID-19 positive. 

Countries are now collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. Police in Spain, China, India, and other affected countries are now using drones to patrol and punish offenders breaking the coronavirus lockdown.

As the crisis looms large and governments and health care officials struggle, it’s important to understand that despite the hype there are several limitations of AI and data science particularly the availability of valid data. However, as AI systems evolve, it can play a huge role in the detection, prevention, surveillance and rapid-response efforts for epidemics.

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