Is COVID-19 AI’s Time to Shine?

In a bid to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare facilities around the world are turning to artificial intelligence (AI). Many are using such technologies for the first time under the pressure of staff shortages and overwhelming patient loads. In parallel, dozens of AI firms have developed new software or revamped existing tools, hoping to cash in by cultivating new client relationships that will continue after the crisis is over. 

There’s no denying that Covid-19 has turned into a gateway for AI adoption in healthcare. This brings with it both opportunity and risk. On one hand it has pushed hospitals, doctors, governments and service providers to fast-track promising new technologies. On the other hand, this accelerated process could allow unvetted tools to bypass regulatory processes. 

In China, artificial intelligence was leveraged in subway stations, train stations and other public places where there is a high concentration of people and a high degree of mobility. This made it possible to take body temperature in a contactless, reliable, and efficient manner.

In France, as caseloads began to overwhelm the healthcare system, triaging patients via chest x-ray (though less accurate than a PCR diagnostic) became a fallback solution. Using Vizyon’s Lunit Software, calculating a probability of infection was reduced to just ten minutes instead of the 12 hours of a genetic test. 

In the UK, the lead radiologist at the Royal Bolton Hospital jumped head first into what was supposed to be a conservative trial of a promising AI-based chest x-ray system called qXR. Within weeks, Mumbai-based company Qure.ai retooled qXR to detect Covid-induced pneumonia, making qXR one of the fastest and most affordable ways for doctors to triage patients. 

In the United States, Google’s DeepMind turned its use of the AlphaFold deep learning system to predict protein structures associated with the Covid-19 disease in efforts to help scientists understand how to fight the coronavirus. 

Here in Australia, a start-up initially developed to improve the accuracy of breast cancer detection was quickly modified to detect Covid-19 using lung CT scans of patients from Italy and China. The free technology was shared widely throughout Australia and helps those interpreting lung scans to get familiar with what they should be looking for in a Covid-19 diagnosis. 

These are just a handful of the global AI responses to the pandemic.

Is AI here to stay?

When it comes to AI in healthcare, there are a lot of factors at play. AI will be a driving force in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine and it will increasingly take pressure off healthcare warriors on the frontline. Now is the time for AI to live up to its hype and show what it can do.

AI has an important role in the healthcare system, as a physician, nurse, pharmacist, technologist, therapist, service provider, policy maker, data analyst, researcher and more. It will help track disease spread trends and identify where healthcare needs are most acute, where the virus is likely to spread, and ways to facilitate early intervention. AI can also match Covid-19 symptoms and treatments with other therapeutic treatments that have been administered in similar symptom scenarios in order to identify best treatments for the disease while we await a vaccine. At the same time it will speed formulas and time to a vaccine. 

For any company or health organisation slowly starting to implement AI, the Covid-19 crisis has a clear message: AI is no longer experimental or expendable technology. It is mission-critical and corporate IT plans should be redrafted to reflect this.  


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