COVID: Artificial intelligence in the pandemic – DW (English)

  • Lauren
  • July 6, 2021
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If artificial intelligence is the future, then the future is now. This pandemic has shown us just how fast artificial intelligence, or AI, works and what it can do in so many different ways. Right from the start, AI has helped us learn about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infections. It’s helped scientists analyse the virus’ genetic information — its DNA — at speed. DNA is the stuff that makes the virus, indeed any living thing, what it is. And if you want to defend yourself, you had better know your enemy. AI has also helped scientists understand how fast the virus mutates and helped them develop and test vaccines. We won’t be able to get into all of it — this is just an overview. But let’s start by recapping the basics about AI. Speed refresher course on AI An AI is a set of instructions that tells a computer what to do, from recognizing faces in the photo albums on our phones to sifting through huge dumps of data for that proverbial needle in a haystack. People often call them algorithms. It sounds fancy but an algorithm is nothing more than an app. It’s a static list of rules that tells a computer: “If this, then that.” A machine learning (ML) algorithm, meanwhile, is the kind of AI that many of us like to fear. It’s an AI that can learn from the things it reads and analyzes and teach itself to do new things. And we humans often feel like we can’t control or even know what ML algorithms learn. But actually, we can ― because we write the original code. So you can afford to relax. A bit. In summary, AIs and MLs are programs that let us process lots and lots of information, a lot of it “raw” data, very fast. They are not all evil monsters out to kill us or steal our jobs — not necessarily, anyway.  How AI is helping in the fight against COVID With COVID-19, AI and ML may have helped save a few lives. They have been used in diagnostic tools that read vast numbers of chest X-rays faster than any radiologist. That’s helped doctors identify and monitor COVID patients. In Nigeria, the technology has been used at a very basic but practical level to help people assess their of risk of getting infected. People answer a series of questions online and depending on their answers are offered remote medical advice or redirected to a hospital. The makers, a company called Wellvis, say it has reduced the number of people calling disease control hotlines unnecessarily. South Korea: Testing for COVID One of the most important things we’ve had to handle is finding out who is infected — fast. And in South Korea, artificial intelligence gave doctors a head start. Way back when the rest of the world was still wondering whether it was time to go into the first lockdown, a company in Seoul used AI to develop a COVID-19 test — in mere weeks, when it would have taken them months without AI. It was “unheard of,” said Youngsahng “Jerry” Suh, head of data science and AI development at the company, Seegene, in an interview with DW. Seegene’s scientists ordered raw materials for the kits on January 24 and by February 5 the first version of the test was ready. It was only the third time the company had used its supercomputer and Big Data analysis to design a test. But they must have done something right because by mid-March 2020, international reports suggested that South Korea had tested 230,000 people. And, at least for a while, the country was able to keep the number of new infections per day relatively flat. “And we’re constantly updating that as new variants and mutations come to light. So, that allows our machine learning algorithm to detect those new variants as well,” says Suh. South Africa: Detecting a third wave One of the other major issues we’ve had to handle is tracking how the disease — especially new variants and their mutations — spread through a community and from country to country. In South Africa, researchers used an AI-based algorithm to predict future daily confirmed cases of COVID-19. It was based on historical data from South Africa’s past infection history and other information, such as the way people move from one community to another. They say they showed the country had a low risk of a third wave of the pandemic. “People thought the Beta Variant was going to spread around the continent and overwhelm our health systems, but with AI we were able to control that,” says Jude Kong, director of the Africa Canada Artificial Intelligence and Data Innovation Consortium. The project was a collaboration between Wits University and the Provincial Government of Gauteng in South Africa and York University in Canada, where Kong, a native of Cameroon, is an assistant professor. Kong says “data is very sparse in Africa” and one of the problems is getting over the stigma attached to any kind of illness, whether it’s COVID, HIV, Ebola or malaria. But AI has helped them “reveal hidden realities” specific to each area, and that’s informed local health policies, he says. They have deployed their AI modelling in Botswana, Cameroon, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. “A lot of information is one-dimensional,” Kong says. “You know the number of people entering a hospital and those that get out. But hidden below that is their age, comorbidities, and the community where they live. We reveal that with AI to determine how vulnerable they are and inform policy makers.” A “hyped” potential? 
Other types of AI, similar to facial recognition algorithms, can be used to detect infected people, or those with elevated temperatures, in crowds. And AI-driven robots can clean hospitals and other public spaces. But, beyond that, there are experts who say AI’s potential has been overstated. They include Neil Lawrence, a professor of machine learning at the University of Cambridge who was quoted in April 2020, calling out AI as “hyped.” It was not surprising, he said, that in a pandemic, researchers fell back on tried and tested techniques, like simple mathematical modelling. But one day, he said, AI might be useful. That was only 15 months ago. And look how far we’ve come.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Better keep your distance in case of COVID That’s how to do it: If humans have COVID-19, dogs had better cuddle with their stuffed animals. Researchers from Utrecht in the Netherlands took nasal swabs and blood samples from 48 cats and 54 dogs whose owners had contracted COVID-19 in the last 200 days. Lo and behold, they found the virus in 17.4% of cases. Of the animals, 4.2% also showed symptoms.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Animals can get sick, too About a quarter of the animals that had been infected were also sick. Although the course of the illness was mild in most of the animals, three were considered to be severe. Nevertheless, medical experts are not very concerned. They say pets do not play an important role in the pandemic. The biggest risk is human-to-human transmission.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus To pet, or not to pet? The fact that cats can become infected with coronaviruses has been known since March 2020. At that time, the Veterinary Research Institute in Harbin, China, had shown for the first time that the novel coronavirus can replicate in cats. The house tigers can also pass on the virus to other felines, but not very easily, said veterinarian Hualan Chen at the time.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Don’t worry But cat owners shouldn’t panic. Felines quickly form antibodies to the virus, so they aren’t contagious for very long. Anyone who is acutely ill with COVID-19 should temporarily restrict outdoor access for domestic cats. Healthy people should wash their hands thoroughly after petting strange animals.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Who’s infecting whom? Should this pet pig keep a safe distance from the dog when walking in Rome? That question may now also have to be reassessed. Pigs hardly come into question as carriers of the coronavirus, the Harbin veterinarians argued in 2020. But at that time they had also cleared dogs of suspicion. Does that still apply?
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus When humans are a threat Nadia, a four-year-old Malaysian tiger, was one of the first big cats to be detected with the virus in 2020 — at a New York zoo. “It is, to our knowledge, the first time a wild animal has contracted COVID-19 from a human,” the zoo’s chief veterinarian told National Geographic magazine.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Have bats been wrongly accused? It is thought that the virus originated in the wild. So far, bats are considered the most likely first carriers of SARS-CoV-2. However, veterinarians assume there must have been another species as an intermediate host between them and humans in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Only which species this could be is unclear.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus The prime suspect This racoon dog is a known carrier of the SARS viruses. German virologist Christian Drosten spoke about the species being a potential virus carrier. “Racoon dogs are trapped on a large scale in China or bred on farms for their fur,” he said. For Drosten, the racoon dog is clearly the prime suspect.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Or perhaps this little suspect? Pangolins are also under suspicion for transmitting the virus. Researchers from Hong Kong, China and Australia have detected a virus in a Malaysian Pangolin that shows stunning similarities to SARS-CoV-2.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Quarantine for ferrets Hualan Chen also experimented with ferrets. The result: SARS-CoV-2 can multiply in the scratchy martens in the same way as in cats. Transmission between animals occurs as droplet infections. At the end of 2020, tens of thousands of martens had to be killed in various fur farms worldwide because the animals had become infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Dogs and cats can also be infected with coronavirus Are chickens a danger to humans? Experts have given the all-clear for people who handle poultry, such as this trader in Wuhan, China, where scientists believe the first case of the virus emerged in 2019. Humans have nothing to worry about, as chickens are practically immune to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as are ducks and other bird species. Author: Fabian Schmidt