The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has sparked a health crisis that in turn has unleashed an unprecedented deployment of resources. The scientific and technology communities have put their full weight behind finding solutions that help mitigate the impact of the pandemic, which currently totals more than 435,000 cases of infection worldwide.
In recent weeks, numerous resource and knowledge-sharing initiatives have come to the fore, initiatives such as open source data and design that could help tackle some of the challenges presented by the rapid spread of the virus. Technology is being used to measure the progression of the disease it causes (COVID-19), to ensure health care centers have access to the supplies they urgently need, and even to relieve some of the more difficult side effects of social distancing.
Here we review some of the innovative ideas that are helping fight the crisis:
Using big data to understand the virus’ genetic tree
Understanding how this new virus, called SARS-CoV-2, behaves is critical for defining measures that can stop its spread. Nextstrain is an open-sourced project that provides data, sequencing, and visualizations showing the evolution of pathogens like coronavirus, information that can help epidemiologists understand how it evolves in different countries and possible mutations that can change its nature. By sharing the genetic sequencing of 700 cases of the virus with the scientific community, the project has contributed to corroborating that that the virulence of the virus has not changed as the virus has spread to other countries.
Machines learn to find a therapy
If enough quality data is available, artificial intelligence could prove to be a powerful tool used for predicting the disease’s future trend and even even looking for possible treatments. The biotechnology company AbCellera is using a machine learning model to develop therapies based on antibodies from patients who have recovered from the disease. Specifically, they have used AI technology to analyze more than five million immune cells as they search for those that are able to produce antibodies that help patients recover. Thanks to artificial intelligence, 500 antibodies have already been identified as possible candidates for use in future COVID-19 therapies.
Keeping hospitals afloat with telemedicine
Telemedicine is one of the alternatives that communities are turning to in order to avoid overwhelming hospitals with an unmanageable influx of patients. Telemedicine is streamlining the diagnosis and treatment processes, making them faster and easier: patients merely need to open an application, describe their symptoms, and wait for a doctor to get back to them via a virtual consultation. There are examples from around the world. In China, the Xuhui public hospital in Shanghai has consulted with patients as far away as Tibet and even France. In Spain, a Seville-based company, Open Salud (Open Health), has launched a complimentary tele-consultation platform that allows any doctor or clinic to determine the best mechanism for tending to their patients.
An app to free up hotlines
Inspired by a South Korean application, the regional government in Madrid has launched an initiative, ‘Corona Madrid,’ available both by app and on a web page. Individuals who suspect they might have the virus can conduct a physical self-assessment based on their symptoms, and depending on the result, they will receive instructions and advice about steps to take for treatment. This initiative, jointly developed by several Spanish companies and in record time, aims to reduce call congestion for the regional coronavirus hotline while providing health authorities a more concise local snapshot of the pandemic.
Breathing more easily with 3D printers
Ventilators have become essential equipment for providing treatment to the most severe cases of COVID-19. But the health system is facing a shortage of supplies. To address this problem, different groups of ‘makers’ around the world have set up network communication platforms and channels, using technology like Telegram, where they share information about open-source design for manufacturing ventilators with 3D printers. Anyone with a 3D printer can collaborate by printing the necessary respirator components. The goal is to make them available to health care services.
The project is yielding fast results: in just a few days, members of one of the groups in Spain (Reesistencia Team), were able to build an open-source respirator prototype, which has already been successfully tested on a pig at the Central University Hospital of Asturias in northern Spain. The ‘makers team’ has received support from Asturias’ Council of Science, the hospital’s medical professionals, and the University of Oviedo, all of whom are pulling together to accelerate human testing of the device.
A chatbot answers questions
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched the WHO chatbot with the intention of providing information about the novel coronavirus and to provide answers to questions frequently asked about the sickness, such as current infection rates and what can be done to protect oneself. The WHO’s bot takes a simple approach: it does not use natural language, rather users have to send numbers or emojis to get information on different topics. For example, if they want the latest figures about the virus, they should send ‘1’ or if they want information about travel, submit ‘5’. The WHO chatbot operates on the WhatsApp platform, which belongs Facebook. The tech giant has also created a social media Coronavirus Information Center that appears at the top of its users’ feeds providing an official source of information, while removing pages that spread disinformation and fake news.
And video calls are keeping people together
Video call applications have become essential tools for dealing with confinement and not losing contact with those beyond one’s four walls, especially for those who live alone. Some of the most popular applications are Skype, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Duo, Webex and Zoom, which according to the New York Times, received approximately 600,000 downloads in one day at the beginning of the pandemic. According to company sources, Facebook Messenger’s video call functionality has seen a 70 percent increase in activity since the beginning of the pandemic.
These applications are being used both to organize meetings for teams of remote workers and to help loved ones stay in touch with one another. The last few weeks have borne witness to an unleashing of creativity as users have organized concerts, workshops, virtual get togethers, birthday parties and even weddings for which guests have received invitations with a link to a site where they can see the ceremony streamed.