Medical professionals, scientists, and engineers alike are pooling their skills and using AI and the IoT to fight this global threat in a way that’s never been done before. And in a way that will leave us much better equipped to fight future pandemics. The world is in a tough spot. Coronavirus is on the loose and taking thousands of vulnerable lives every day. It is not only wreaking havoc on human health but with the world economy too.
The virus and the disease
The virus is officially called 'severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2' (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes is known as 'coronavirus disease 19' (COVID-19). While yet to be proven, it’s thought that bats were the original host, and the disease then passed to humans from another unidentified animal. The first outbreak was observed in China in December 2019 and has now spread to hundreds of countries.
A silent assassin
Today’s coronavirus is proving worse than previous pandemics because it’s not only highly contagious but also because people are infectious before they show any symptoms - making it difficult to prevent the virus from spreading.
It is too early to say what the final death rate from COVID-19 will be. The medical journal The Lancet currently places it at around 3.4 percent,but anything above zero is bad. With potentially millions getting the disease, tens of thousands more could die in addition to those that have already succumbed. While no one is immune, cruelly the victims tend to be the elderly and those already suffering from acute ailments.
In the long term, a vaccine promises to bring coronavirus to heel. But developing one is not trivial, and even with a global effort, it could take many months. And after that, billions of doses need to be manufactured, distributed, and administered. A vaccine is not a quick fix.
In the absence of a vaccine, a favored strategy is to ‘lock-down’ a country’s population. However, the downsides of lock-downs are huge; besides the psychological effects of remaining indoors for extended periods, many people can’t work, and businesses are forced to close.
Technology can help address the drawbacks of mass lock-downs by bringing greater precision to the identification of patients who have the disease but are showing no symptoms. By locking-down only those with COVID-19, everybody else can go about their daily business and keep the economy ticking over. The challenge is knowing who has the virus.
AI and machine learning are offering promise for such a strategy. For example, because a fever is a an essential early symptom of COVID-19, China has been combining CCTV, facial recognition, and temperature-sensing robots to feed AI programs that then identify potential victims before they can infect their fellow citizens.
Due to its proximity and transport links to China, Taiwan was expected to have the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. But so far, Taiwan has brought AI to bear to prevent a widespread outbreak of the disease. The authorities on the island used an existing household registration system, cell phone data, a national health insurance database, and immigration records to build an AI algorithm that tracked individuals based on their travel and medical history.
The AI enabled high-risk individuals to be rapidly targeted for testing and quarantine, limiting the number of other people they could infect. The data also made it much easier to contact people who had been in contact with a potentially infected person so they could then volunteer for testing.
Nordic’s Bluetooth LE technology is playing a significant role in the war against COVID-19 thanks to customers who are coming up with clever wireless applications to combat the virus. Critical efforts so far break down into three categories: Monitoring people with thermometers and pulse oximeters; tracking the movements of people identified as carriers so that others that have come into contact with them can be advised to get tested quickly, and; tracking hand hygiene.
Connected health specialist, Kinsa Health, for example, is using data from millions of Nordic-based Bluetooth LE smart thermometers to help combat coronavirus in the U.S. Anonymized data gathered by the smart thermometers, and then forwarded from smartphone apps, allows the company to build a patient-temperature heat map of the U.S. It can be used to quickly identify potential COVID-19 hotspots to help agencies precisely target scarce resources.
Elsewhere, Spanish engineering company, Accent Systems, has developed a ‘COVID-19 BLE wristband’ that helps contain the spread of coronavirus through high-accuracy contact tracing of individuals who test positive. Each wristband is uniquely identifiable and uses Bluetooth LE to detect and record the unique user ID of every other wristband that comes near over the past 30 days. If a user later develops COVID-19 symptoms, their data is automatically sent to the nearest medical center so that everyone they have come into contact with can be advised of the risk.One challenge with tracking devices is that they could be seen as an infringement to civil liberties by increasing the surveillance of members of the public. Even in a time of crisis there would need to be careful consideration of policies regarding their use to balance the requirements of privacy against boosting protection against coronavirus.
Another Nordic customer is using wirelessly-enabled sensors and medical staff tags to monitor hygiene regimes and patient contact in hospitals full of COVID-19 victims. Sensors are attached to sanitizer dispensers to detect when staff uses them. Also, staff wears a tag that determines how often they use a sanitizer or other handwashing facilities. Finally, sensors are fitted above patient beds so that staff contact with the patients can be precisely monitored. A smartphone dashboard summarizes the data so users can quickly see if their hygiene regime is satisfactory.
Ready for the next pandemic
Even the most advanced technology can’t prevent new viruses from evolving, and once the current health crisis is resolved, we can be sure another will follow. What’s different this time is the way we are leveraging AI and the IoT to bring this virus under control.
The lessons learned and the technology developed as a result will ensure we are in a much better position to react quickly to the next outbreak. That will help to avert a global economic crisis and, far more importantly, save countless lives.