Tuesday 16 June 2020 4:55 am

How AI technology is leading the charge against Covid-19

Dr Tim Guilliams is co-founder and chief executive at Healx

The application of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare has, until now, often been limited to specialised areas such as medical imaging and electronic health records. 

But with the Covid-19 pandemic introducing new, unexpected complexities for health systems to address, the benefits of AI are finally being realised in the mainstream. 

From helping us better understand the virus and model how it spreads, to developing potential vaccines and treatments, to quickly examining patient X-rays, it has been truly inspiring to witness how creatively and widely  this technology has been adopted. 

While there is still further potential to be unlocked, AI is already proving its value in analysing and synthesising information at scale, and is massively progressing healthcare during this time of need. 

So if you need inspiring during in these uncertain times, here are three ways that AI is already helping in the fight against Covid-19, and could prove instrumental in overcoming this disease altogether.

Mapping and forecasting the spread of the virus

Prediction and prevention of the virus go hand in hand, which is why the development of tracking and mapping tools for the spread of Covid-19 is being hotly pursued by a number of companies. 

Before the World Health Organisation even notified the public of coronavirus, one Canadian health monitoring platform, BlueDot, had already spread word of the outbreak to its customers. Thanks to an AI-driven algorithm it had developed, the company was able to scour various data pools such as foreign-language news reports, airline ticketing data and animal disease networks to provide an advance warning of the disease and where the virus would spread next.

Closer to home, the UK government has developed a contact tracing app which is currently being trialed in the Isle of Wight. Tools like this rely heavily on data and AI to accurately trace if someone has come into contact with a symptomatic individual.

While simple in concept, this type of technology could be invaluable in reducing the spread of the disease. 

Read more: DEBATE: Should we be worried about the privacy issues around the contact tracing app?

The hunt for the cure

The development of new drugs remains a complex, costly and lengthy process, so a system which can accelerate this is crucial in today’s hunt for a cure. 

It is perhaps no surprise that global efforts have now turned to AI to cut the time for analysis and treatment discovery. For example, Northwestern University researchers are currently using an AI-powered tool to prioritise resources for the most promising studies.

Another strategy is drug repurposing, which involves identifying new uses for existing approved drugs. At Healx we are using our powerful AI platform, Healnet, to develop drug combinations for Covid-19 from approved therapies. 

This focus on combination therapies, where two or more drugs are used simultaneously, means researchers are able to target different aspects of a disease which make for a more effective treatment. But while we feel this is a smart approach, it is complex. To uncover potential combination treatments for Covid-19 requires detailed analysis of the eight million possible pairs and 10.5bn drug triples stemming from the 4,000 approved drugs already on the market. 

AI can help to overcome this challenge — Healnet integrates and analyses data from multiple sources to quickly predict those combination therapies most likely to succeed in the clinic. 

Scanning CTs

Technology is also being used to fight Covid-19 in medical disciplines that rely on imaging data, such as radiology. 

Prior to the outbreak, AI was already being used in radiology to automate image analysis, drive efficiency and reduce human error. But that was only the start.

Now, hospitals in China and Malaysia are using the Axial AI-based system, which used AI algorithms to scan CT images of patients’ lungs to look for signs of Covid-19. Traditionally very time-consuming, CT images are now accurately analysed by the AI system in a matter of seconds. 

Here in the UK, chest X-rays have emerged as the frontline diagnostic tool for coronavirus. Having repurposed their existing chest X-ray AI tool, a company called Qure.ai is now helping healthcare professionals detect signs of Covid-19 and monitor the extent and rate of disease progression.

The future of AI in healthcare 

Whilst we still have a way to go in eradicating the disease, AI-led innovations have helped us make discoveries and advancements we could only have dreamed of 20 years ago. 

Post-pandemic, I hope to see this kind of inventiveness, collaboration and creativity continue and I look forward to seeing the ways medical professionals utilise new technologies to deliver care to patients across the globe. 

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.