Coronavirus or more specifically the 2019 Novel Coronavirus or 2019-nCoV is a new virus causing respiratory infections, the first case of which was reported in Wuhan City, Hubei province of China on 31st December 2019. It has, at the present moment, spread to other parts of the world such as the Philippines, India, and the USA. Scientists and epidemiologists are working hard in gathering as much information possible, to combat the deadly virus. In discussing the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, and its connection to Artificial Intelligence, it is very useful to get some basic knowledge regarding the virus itself out of the way, such as:
What is Coronavirus?
The Novel (new) Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a previously unidentified form of Coronavirus. It is, however, not the same as the regular Coronavirus that commonly circulate among humans and causes mild illnesses, like a common cold.
Where are its origins and how does it spread?
The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a beta Coronavirus like MERS and SARS, both of which have their origin in bats and hence suggest a recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir. Early patients of this virus had some link to large seafood or live animal markets, which henceforth remain the prime suspects of the animal-to-person transfer point of the 2019-nCoV. More information regarding the same presently is, however, unclear.
The virus may likely have originated from an animal source but currently seems to be spreading from person-to-person. Different viruses show differing levels of virulence and tendency to spread from one body to another. At the present moment, however, it is unclear as to the exact method of contagion of the Novel Coronavirus.
Artificial Intelligence uses huge amounts of data and groups them into coherent categories to indicate or realize a specific goal, in real-time. Since the task of sifting through all those heaps data is performed by a very powerful computer, it can come to a very well calculated result, very quickly, the time efficiency of which is impossible to be matched by a human.
In past outbreaks, AI has not been a very useful tool in monitoring and responding quickly to combat the said outbreak. The reason for that lies in the fact that the practice of generation and collection of suitable data and the AI technology itself, in the past, weren’t extensively developed. Today, however, the situation is vastly different. This is proved firsthand by companies such as BlueDot, surveillance sites such as healthmap.org, etc. who have successfully used AI to predict the spread and effect of the 2019-Novel Coronavirus.
AI’s role in combating 2019-nCoV/Coronavirus
Millions of posts in social media and news sites today can be used by AI algorithms to generate very useful real-time tracking data regarding the spread and effect of the Novel Coronavirus for public health officials to quickly respond to. A very good example of its implementation is from the Canadian firm, BlueDot. They were the first in successfully reporting a potential biohazard and an impending outbreak of the novel coronavirus by using AI algorithms to sift through everything, from social media posts to news articles and government documents. So much so that they had already warned their clients against travelling to regions like Wuhan City even before foreign governments had issued suitable travel advisories.
John Brownstein is a computational epidemiologist who also operates a public health surveillance site called healthmap.org. The essence of using an Artificial Intelligence-powered real-time system is very well captured in his own words,
“We use machine learning to scrape all the information, classify it, tag it, and filter it — and then that information gets pushed to our colleagues at WHO that are looking at this information all day and making assessments”.
This is by no means, however, the entire extent of the usefulness of an AI-driven threat assessment system. BlueDot had also successfully used said system to predict the spread of the 2019-nCoV to other cities such as Seoul, Bangkok, Taipei, and Tokyo by using Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing to create real-time models of online ticketing information, news reports in 65 different languages and plant and animal disease networks. This was then passed on to professional epidemiologists who correct any remaining inconsistency in the auto-generated data, attach risk factors and draw up a final report on the said case.
Furthermore, Machine Learning can also be used to identify patterns to accurately predict a host of other factors related to a disease outbreak, beyond basic surveillance and monitoring. Such factors include how far and fast is the disease likely to spread, what kinds of people it is most likely to affect and can even identify zip codes or groups of people that are connected to the virus. Going into the future, the algorithms can also potentially identify the kinds of treatments and medicines that have shown the greatest number of successfully cured patients. It would hence, be very useful in identifying the treatments which are most likely to succeed, the types of people they are most likely to succeed on, etc. It, however, remains too early in the outbreak for such kinds of analyses to be conclusive.
Even though Artificial Intelligence remains one of the most useful tools in containing an outbreak like the 2019-Novel Coronavirus, which is progressing at an incredible pace, it is by no means going to replace professional epidemiologists or information-gathering work of public health leaders. Its role is simply to be an incredibly powerful tool to boost the efforts of such people and authorities in combating the disease even faster, reducing the number of people it affects or the death toll it leaves behind.
Disease outbreaks in the past have claimed an incredible number of lives, taken loved ones from their families without discriminating between rich or poor or powerful or weak. In the past, humans did not have powerful enough tools to contain such diseases before it had a chance to appreciably spread. Today, however, that is changing at a breakneck pace with the advent of computer-aided threat detection and warning systems, quick adoption of which means that things will only be getting better with time.
Technology, however, cannot undermine the importance of personal care everyone needs to take in such times to prevent contraction of such diseases, negating the requirement of a cure. Concluding this article, we share some steps laid out by the World Health Organization that you can take as an individual to prevent the same.
WHO’s standard recommendations for the general public to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses are as follows, which include hand and respiratory hygiene, and safe food practices:
- Frequently clean hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water;
- When coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw the tissue away immediately and wash hands
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough
- If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider
- When visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of a novel coronavirus, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals
- The consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, milk or animal organs should be handled with care, to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, as per good food safety practices.