The almost uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 or coronavirus disease 2019 has unnerved the entire mankind. It is caused by a newly discovered strain of coronaviruses called SARS-CoV-2 which is different from SARS-CoV-1 that caused SARS outbreak in 2002. The disease is highly infectious and patients can infect others in the vicinity without showing symptoms (asymptomatic) themselves. There is no cure and hence can cause death of the patient. It has infected more than 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 6% of them have died. It was declared a pandemic, i.e. an epidemic that spreads to multiple countries by WHO
The first step to control the disease is to understand the virus itself
Genome and vaccines
The genome of this virus has about 30000 bases or nucleotides and is composed of RNA. Chinese scientists used a technique called Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) to decode the genome. This technique analyses multiple micro scale reactions in parallel and is faster than previously used Sanger sequencing. However, it produces output in terabytes of data. But the key to understand the characteristics of the virus is to understand the mutations it undergoes as it changes hosts and populations. Scientists break the RNA of a virus collected from different sources and try to see the differences. They can create a family “tree” of descent that can point to the first patients and hence the source, when transmissions happened and if it is getting more infectious. Here quick sequencing of genome allowed diagnostic tests to be developed fast.
Scientists need to decode genomes of the infected people to understand the differential reactions of the people as most had mild symptoms while it proved fatal to some. This is required to understand to understand potentially protective genetic differences. Sequencing of human’s DNA needs memory in hundreds of Gigabytes. Besides entire DNA is sequenced about 30 times to reduce error. The entire analysis using genomes of the virus and the humans needs storage in Terabytes or even Petabytes and High Speed Computing (HPC).
Development of vaccine needs more efforts. It requires screening of millions of chemical compounds to short list potential drugs. Here Artificial Intelligence with its predictive capabilities can help. Artificial Intelligence can be used to predict the physical structure of an organism including virus based on the genome. Any potential drug needs to connect to the virus or more accurately proteins associated with the virus to be effective. Artificial Intelligence can also help in identifying the potential targets of these drugs. Multiple companies e.g. BenevolentAI, Insilico Medicine, DeepMind, SRI Biosciences, BGI Genomics etc are active in this area. They focus of effectiveness of a drug in binding to its target, shortlisting of potential drugs, design of new drugs, predicting structure of proteins that form the virus etc
Since molecular modelling of proteins, genomics or training of Artificial Intelligence is very computationally intensive, various companies and institutions are using or offering their supercomputing powers e.g. IBM’ Summit, University of Texas’ Frontera, NASA’s High-End Computing Capability Portfolio, National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC) Singapore etc. Stanford University’s Folding@Home project uses spare computing power of ordinary PCs.
This has raised the hope that a vaccine may be available in a year’s time as many have already entered trials.
In the absence of any cure, prevention is the best way to control the spread. Lockdowns of various degrees have been imposed across the globe. These have restricted people from attending office, factories, markets, educational institutes etc. However, use of mobile or landline based broadband connections and telephones have allowed many of the activities to continue. People in services sector are able to work remotely mostly from their homes or serve their customers remotely. Students have been able to attend schools or colleges using online methods. Delivery of goods and services is being helped by online ordering e.g. in Wuhan which experienced strict restrictions in January and February, food and essential supplies were enabled by food delivery apps e.g. Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me etc. Some of the governments e.g. Dubai, Kuwait etc have started offering more services online. This has mitigated the impact of lockdowns on the economy and society
The highly infectious and asymptotic nature of the disease implies that the existing patients should not be allowed to mingle with others. Similarly, potential victims need to be predicted. The current telecom technology allows location of mobile phone to be traced. This is being used by countries e.g. Israel. Iran, China etc to check people who came in contact with infected ones. Similarly South Korea is using wrist bands to track the people who are violating quarantine restrictions. China used AI powered glasses that can measure temperature of a person from a distance. These glasses automatically updated database if they found a person with high temperature, a symptom of this disease. Since travelling emerged as a main source of spread, travel history of people was uploaded into databases and made available to security guards who used this data to restrict movement of such people. South Korea used mobile application to alert people of an infected person in vicinity
A company, HealthMap predicted the disease by mining social sites e.g. WeChat, Weibo etc. Its data is being used to find links between the disease and population mobility and control measures. Canadian firm, BlueDot uses data from official briefings, flight details, digital media etc to predict outbreak of a disease and its potential spread. In fact it spotted the disease even before official confirmation. Another company, DarwinAI scans chest X rays records of the patients to discover signs of this. disease. Dataminr also uses social media information to predict spike of this virus in different areas. These companies use Artificial Intelligence for their predictions
The pandemic will change various aspects of our life forever. Tendency to work and serve remotely will increase. More transactions will move online. The demand for 5G networks that assure per-user download speeds and uploads speed rather than just the theoretical maximum, lower latency, better battery consumption etc will increase. Artificial Intelligence has already entered our lives in multiple ways and will gain more acceptance as its role in containing the pandemic will be acknowledged. Use of genomics in medicine and study of evolution will be further established. After some time, influence of virus in our lives will wane but the grip of IT and Telecom will tighten.