“Chinese health authorities say an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness has sickened 305 people and killed five”… No, this is not an excerpt from a recent news report about the Wuhan virus, but it is actually one from a CNN piece from 2003 when the SARS outbreak was raging. There are many similarities between the current outbreak to the SARS one from its geolocation to its spread to the viruses themselves.
However, much has changed within the 17-year gap between those two pandemics. For one, technology in the healthcare sector has known an exponential boom. New technologies that were nonexistent or poorly developed in 2003 are now more affordable and widespread and can help manage and even prevent such cases. Let’s see how this can be the case.
What is the Wuhan virus?
First identified in the city of Wuhan, hence the name, the Wuhan virus is a member of the family of coronaviruses which can cause mild conditions like the common cold to potentially lethal ones like the severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. The novel 2019-nCoV strain found in Wuhan has been found to be closely linked to those found in bats, and could have initially spread in the Huanan seafood wholesale market, where live animals are sold and slaughtered.
However, China has confirmed human-to-human transmission, akin to the flu, and hence its rapid spread globally. This is more so given the fact that the outbreak happened during the Lunar New Year season, when 3 billion trips are expected to be made.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s see how technology has been or can be used in the context of the Wuhan virus pandemic and help manage or even prevent future cases.
A.I. to detect the spread of an epidemic
At the beginning of the SARS outbreak, China covered up the existence of the virus from both its citizens and the world. Even though China seems to have become more transparent in those matters, some might still not be convinced. To circumvent those trust issues, artificial intelligence can be a solution.
As a matter of fact, Toronto-based health monitoring A.I. platform Bluedot beat both the WHO and the CDC to the punch when issuing warnings about the Wuhan virus’ spread. It even correctly predicted the virus’ likely path from Wuhan to Tokyo after its initial appearance. Bluedot calls itself “a digital health company that uses big data analytics to track and anticipate the spread of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases”. By going through piles of information about news reports, airline data, and reports of animal disease outbreaks, Bluedot’s algorithm can identify a trend which is then analyzed by epidemiologists. The company then shares the information with its clients.
“We happen to have growing access to data we can use … to generate insights and spread them faster than the diseases spread themselves,” Bluedot’s founder and CEO Kamran Khan told The Canadian Press. A.I. is also being used to model Ebola outbreaks using movement data. By having an A.I. sift through the available data and make informed predictions which are cross-checked by experts, relevant bodies can contain such diseases before they even leave their source of origin.
Interactive maps for monitoring
The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University developed an online dashboard to visualize and track the reported cases on a daily timescale. They also made the complete set of data downloadable as a Google Sheet. The map shows new cases, confirmed deaths and recoveries.
The data they use to visualize this is collected from various sources including WHO, CDC, China CDC, NHC and DXY, a Chinese website that aggregates NHC and local CCDC situation reports in near real-time, providing more current regional case estimates than the national level reporting organizations are capable of, and is thus used for all the mainland China cases reported in the dashboard.
Information on U.S. cases is taken from the U.S. CDC, and all other country case data is taken from the corresponding regional health departments. The dashboard is intended to provide the public with an understanding of the outbreak situation as it unfolds, using transparent data sources.
New tech for faster detection
As we’ve mentioned in the introduction, technology has dramatically evolved since the days of the SARS virus. For the current coronavirus outbreak, the culprit was identified within a week from the public announcement and the first diagnostic test was developed shortly after that. “Back then, it took days to sequence,” Georgetown University infectious diseases physician Daniel Lucey, who worked on SARS in 2003 said. “Now, it can take hours.” Thanks to technological progress, scientists don’t need to cultivate a sufficient amount of viruses before examining them anymore. Minute amounts of viral DNA can be detected directly from a patient’s spit or blood sample.
Another company based in Singapore, Veredus Laboratories, is working on a portable Lab-on-Chip detection kit that is expected to be commercially available as soon as this February 1st. With faster and portable detection solutions, identifying infected individuals for proper medical care will also be quicker by medical teams on the ground, especially when hospitals are overcrowded.
Genome sequencing to find potential vaccines
The Wuhan virus’ genome was completely sequenced by Chinese scientists in less than a month since the first case had been detected. Since the first sequencing was done, almost two dozen more have been completed. In comparison, the SARS virus outbreak started around the end of 2002 and its complete genome was only available in April 2003. This is again thanks to advances in technology and a drive for international collaboration. Richard Ebright, a biologist at Rutgers University, told Stat News that those genome sequences “will be crucially important for the development of diagnostics [and] vaccines”.
Indeed, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has supported pharma companies with millions in funding so as to have a vaccine against the virus ready for human testing in just 16 weeks, a process that normally takes years. With such an ambitious aim, the genome sequences will prove to be very valuable. As we will be able to sequence pathogens’ genome quicker with evolving technology, the rate of finding adequate therapies will also speed up and help save more lives in the process.
Robots to the rescue
As it has been determined that the 2019-nCoV virus can spread from human to human, medical staff are at high risk of being infected. However, impervious to cross-infections are medical robots. These can be real game changers in cases of viral outbreaks.
We’ve seen one such case already in the U.S. where a man, diagnosed with the Wuhan coronavirus, is being treated by a robot. The latter allows physicians to communicate with the patient via a screen and it is also equipped with a stethoscope, helping doctors take the man’s vitals while minimizing exposure to the staff. True, it won’t be possible in a jam-packed hospital in China with hundreds of such patients, but with time, quarantined patients could be better monitored with the help of robots.
Going further, drones for medical deliveries could also be deployed in similar settings so as to reach quarantined zones like Wuhan currently is with medicines and/or supplies. If China can build a hospital in 6 days, then it might as well include digital health technologies to help with faster, more connected diagnosis and treatment.
In any case, the management and prevention of such situations will largely rely on professionals and international collaboration. With the help of technology, containment and eventual treatment of outbreaks can be run more smoothly. If you’ve come across other examples of technologies being used in the Wuhan virus outbreak or think of others that could be helpful, don’t hesitate to share them with us!