Governments turn to AI in fight against coronavirus

By on 27/03/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
AI is being used to crunch vast amounts of public data to find existing drugs that could be used to treat coronavirus patients before a vaccine becomes available. (Photo by J.M. Eddins Jr/US Air Force).

Countries around the world – including the US, South Korea and Taiwan – are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The technology is being used to speed up the development of testing kits and treatments, to track the spread of the virus, and to provide citizens with real-time information.  

In South Korea, the government mobilised the private sector to begin developing coronavirus testing kits soon after reports of a new virus began to emerge from China. As part of this drive, Seoul-based molecular biotech company Seegene used AI to speed up the development of testing kits, enabling it to submit its solution to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) three weeks after scientists began working on it. The company’s founder and chief executive, Chun Jong-yoon, told CNN that had AI not been used, the process would have taken two to three months.

The approval process for new medical equipment, such as testing kits, usually takes 18 months, but the KCDC – part of the South Korean Ministry of Welfare and Health – fast-tracked the process and approved the tests in one week, having evaluated them using the government’s own patient samples.

China has also used AI to speed up scientific processes. Scientists recreated the genome sequence of COVID-19 in a month, aided by AI. By comparison, it took scientists several months to recreate the genome sequence of the SARS virus, using more traditional methods, in 2003.

Meanwhile, The Korea Herald reported that telecoms firm KT has teamed up with South Korea government ministries to develop an AI-based healthcare service that could track the spread of the virus.

In the research project, led by the ICT Ministry and Ministry of Interior and Safety in collaboration with universities and research institutes, KT will provide mobile data, which can be used to generate maps, allowing authorities to understand how populations move and how the virus spreads.

Similarly, NBC News reported that Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang – who Global Government Forum interviewed late last year – used AI to create real-time digital updates alerting citizens to avoid locations where infections had been detected, and a live map of local face mask supplies.

Taiwanese vice president, Chen Chien-Jen, praised Tang in a Facebook post. In it, he said she is “not only a key figure in our national disease prevention efforts,” but has “set an example” in applying artificial intelligence in disease prevention.

AI-fed coronavirus datasets & the role of tech companies

AI is also being used to pool thousands of articles on known coronaviruses, making them easily searchable by medical researchers.

In the US, for example, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for the creation of what became known as the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19). The dataset is a machine-readable coronavirus literature collection, comprising over 44,000 scholarly articles for use by the global research community.

The dataset was created by the Allen Institute for AI, Microsoft and a number of research groups. One of the most immediate and impactful applications of AI is in the ability to help scientists, academics, and technologists find the right information in a sea of scientific papers to move research faster,” said Dr. Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for AI.

Meanwhile, the White House has asked the nation’s AI experts to develop new data mining techniques that can help the scientific community answer high-priority scientific questions related to COVID-19.

“It’s all-hands on deck as we face the COVID-19 pandemic,” Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Eric Horvitz said. “We need to come together as companies, governments, and scientists and work to bring our best technologies to bear across biomedicine, epidemiology, AI, and other sciences. The COVID-19 literature resource and challenge will stimulate efforts that can accelerate the path to solutions on COVID-19.”

In a similar effort to harness tech companies’ expertise, it is understood executives from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook met UK officials at Downing Street on 11 March to discuss their role in the coronavirus crisis, including in modelling and tracking data using AI techniques.  

Race to find treatments

Private sector companies, such as UK-based BenevolentAI, are also using AI to crunch vast amounts of public data to find existing drugs that could be used to treat coronavirus patients before a vaccine becomes available, The Telegraph reported.  

And in the US, San Francisco-based start-ups including Vir Biotechnology and Atomwise are harnessing algorithms to find a molecule that could serve as the basis of a treatment before the end of the year. The aim is to design ‘broad spectrum’ antiviral drugs that are futureproofed to protect against a future coronavirus outbreak.

“The opportunity for AI to speed up the discovery of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics is huge, especially for rapidly-mutating RNA-viruses like Covid where a broad-spectrum approach is needed,” Atomwise chief executive and co-founder, Abraham Heifets, told The Telegraph.

Significantly, AI can also be used to warn of an upcoming epidemic. BlueDot, a global AI database company which uses algorithms, machine learning, and ‘natural language processing’ to analyse information from a multitude of sources and track over a hundred infectious diseases, sent out a warning to customers to avoid Wuhan on 31 December. This warning was issued before both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. The latter did not send out a notice until 9 January. 

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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