Artificial Intelligence to fight pandemics

Paloma Recuero de los Santos    19 February, 2020

Did you know how Artificial Intelligence can help us fight pandemics like the 2019-nCoV coronavirus? In today’s post we tell you how it can become a great tool for national and international health authorities.

The coronavirus 2019-nCoV

Canadian start-up BlueDot alerted its clients to the outbreak of the epidemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan a week before its detection by US health authorities and the World Health Organization.

Coronavirus, still unclassified, has infected 7700 people in just one month, and is responsible for the death of 170. All this in spite of the fact that the world’s largest collection of strategic resources are in place to stop the spread.

Mobility and transport restrictions have affected 60 million people in an attempt to curb the spread of the epidemic. Despite this, WHO has been forced to declare an international emergency. According to the International Health Regulations, the declaration of an emergency must be made when an event “constitutes a risk to the public health of other States through the international spread of a disease”. This “may require a coordinated international response”.

What is a virus?

Viruses are much smaller microorganisms than bacteria. We can only see them through an electron microscope. To multiply, they need a host. That’s why they emerged on our planet at the same time as living things.

It’s estimated that there are about 2 million different species of viruses on Earth. They are, therefore, the most numerous and diverse living beings that exist.

On the other hand, our planet is populated by 7.7 billion people, in continuous population growth. We live in a globalized world and, as a consequence, the flow of people, animals and goods even between continents, is permanent. And with them, viruses travel.

For example, the seasonal flu virus jumps from one continent to another, taking advantage of the movements of migratory birds. Others, like HIV, which affected monkeys, leave the natural niches in which they were confined, and begin to spread among humans.

How to fight the viruses?

To fight them, it is essential to develop antiviral and antibody-based therapies capable of stopping the infection in affected people. It is also very important to use preventive vaccines among health workers or those at risk of infection, in order to prevent its progression.

Therefore, early detection of new diseases is key in the fight against global pandemics. It is at this point that artificial intelligence can help us fight viruses.

Artificial intelligence against viruses

BlueDot was founded in 2014 to provide health workers with early warnings to more effectively identify and treat people who may suffer from epidemic infectious diseases, thus helping to slow their spread.

To do this, they rely on natural language processing techniques that analyze 100,000 articles in 65 languages to track information on more than 100 infectious diseases everyday. Their machine learning algorithms scan news, official reports, blogs and forums related to diseases that can affect people, animals and plants. They also analyze weather or mobility information, which allows them to predict the next “jump” of the disease. For example, the algorithm correctly predicted that coronavirus would jump from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo in the days following its initial appearance.

BlueDot’s epidemiologists analyze this information and issue reports that alert their clients (companies, governments, NGOs). They will then forward them to health centers and public health officials in a dozen countries. In this way, they help them to react more quickly and efficiently to these emergencies.

Early detection is key in the fight against pandemics and, as we can see, Artificial Intelligence can be a great ally.

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