How AI Helped Us Tackle COVID—And Its Role in Future Pandemics

Artificial intelligence (AI), once a science fiction dream, has become part of the everyday world around us. AI has made great strides in the past few decades as it has transformed from basic computer programs that played chess or followed simple commands to the sophisticated data interpretation it offers today. AI today drives our cars, crunches our data, and offers insights about aspects of the world around us. The role that AI plays in healthcare has been developing particularly quickly. The emergence of COVID-19 has highlighted the ways that AI can help us detect and tackle pandemics and other global health threats, mobilizing data and resources to fight humanity’s biggest threats. Let’s take a look at the role AI has played in our efforts to fight COVID-19, and how it can help us tackle future pandemics.

The Emergence of COVID-19

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, it has upended life as we know it. Essentially, every sector of the economy has been affected as people have changed their way of living to prioritize virtual and contactless interactions over face-to-face meetings. Schools closed, people began to work from home, and even doctor’s appointments were cancelled or moved to the virtual realm. The use of virtual platforms and streaming services skyrocketed, and many telecommunications and energy networks experienced unprecedented strain as they struggled to adjust. But life went on, often thanks to the help of AI systems embedded within the tech programs that operate in these sectors. AI has helped enable dynamic and proactive energy allocation to keep up with changes in demand.

But AI hasn’t just helped us adapt our systems to cope with changes in our behavior. AI has helped in the detection of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the first place. BlueDot, an AI-driven algorithm used to monitor disease outbreaks throughout the world, was the first to detect the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan. BlueDot uses natural language processing and machine learning to collect and analyze data from thousands of sources, including digital media, livestock health reports, and public statements from public health organizations. Researchers from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Tongji Hospital in Wuhan also successfully created an AI diagnostic tool to predict the survival rates of COVID patients. The model was found to be 90% accurate.

Keeping Up with the Pandemic

COVID-19 spread more rapidly than many could have predicted. However, AI algorithms have been working side by side with scientists throughout the pandemic to track infections, predict clusters, and detect outbreaks before they become obvious. The role of AI cannot be overstated. Because of the rapid spread of the pandemic and the ability to communicate information instantly across the globe, scientists and researchers found themselves overwhelmed with data about this novel disease as it emerged. Patient laboratory results, health records, and medical imaging data can all offer important clues to how COVID-19 spreads and patient outcomes, but the sheer volume available would be impossible for humans to work with quickly. AI has played a crucial role in processing this data and identifying trends.

AI isn’t only working with medical data, however. Numerous AI tools have worked to track the pandemic and predict clusters by analyzing social media posts and searches. AI has also aided in providing the public with reliable information about the novel disease. One example of this is the company CoRover, which is an AI startup that previously developed chatbots for railway ticketing. CoRover has collaborated with a doctor to create a virtual conversation AI platform that allows people to ask questions about COVID-19.

The Role of AI in Treatments and Vaccines

Even as AI helped predict and track the pandemic as well as aid in contact tracing to contain the spread, it has also helped aid in the discovery of effective treatments. One side effect of the novelty of the coronavirus and the rapid sharing of information has been that many theories are being shared before they have been confirmed. The promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle cure” led to shortages and rationing of the drug in some countries for people who needed it.

The use of AI in drug discovery platforms has helped to sift through this sea of misinformation and identify drug combinations that can be helpful in fighting the disease. AI is able to search through past studies and data to arrive at these recommendations. Other studies have suggested that using AI to sift through and analyze data can get drugs to clinical trials up to five times faster. AI also helped in vaccine development, with Ong et al. using the Vaxign reverse vaccinology-machine learning platform to identify possible vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

How AI Has Helped Scientists Communicate during COVID

AI has played a critical role in all stages of the pandemic, and the systems that we have developed or refined as a result will no doubt alter the course of the next pandemic. One of the biggest changes in how COVID-19 was handled compared to pandemics in the past was driven by the ability of scientists worldwide to work together and collaborate. Academic and scientific publishing experienced their own kind of revolution thanks to COVID, with preprints becoming more widespread and open access embraced more than ever.  This explosion of available data led to a challenge being issued by the White House to create AI tools that could manage and analyse the data. CORD-19 is an example of a dataset which was created to meet that challenge. CORD-19 in turn inspired various AI tools that helped in the drive to find a vaccine and powerful treatments.

The increase in data was also notable in terms of the vast and rapid increase in the literature on COVID-19. This became evident in the number of papers submitted to preprint repositories, and increased the demand for AI writing tools to assist with both creating and analysing the data. As a result, AI writing tools became indispensable to the COVID-19 effort. Scientists have been able to write and share their findings easily with the help of tools like Trinka AI. Trinka is a custom AI writing tool specifically for academics and scientists that understands the nuances of science writing and helps prepare papers for global audiences. As online grammar checkers and spelling checkers grow in popularity, so do more advanced tools like Trinka. AI continues to penetrate every sector of our lives to make them easier. Just as it helped us identify, track, communicate about, treat, and vaccinate against the current pandemic, it will continue to play an important role in keeping humans safe in the future.

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