By now, the global coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of our lives in many ways: as college students who may have been sent home, as family members or friends of those who have been affected by the virus, and as individuals of a society that will forever be impacted by and learn valuable lessons from the coronavirus. In response to the situation, while healthcare workers and medical staff battle the invisible enemy at the front lines, engineers, scientists, and researchers from a variety of companies in big tech, healthcare, and biotech have been working to develop technological solutions to combat the COVID-19 crisis. In this article, we delve into the recent tech-related news regarding coronavirus solutions.
Recently, big tech companies have been ramping up efforts to combat the coronavirus, and one such company is Microsoft. On March 20, Microsoft announced that it offered its Microsoft Azure Healthcare Bot service to medical organizations for screening and assessing potential patients1. This assessment bot is initially available on the CDC website. After testing it out, the bot asks a series of simple questions in order to evaluate, and can provide up-to-date information about the spread of the coronavirus, and suggest actionable items for individuals worried about the coronavirus as well as quickly determine symptoms and potential risks. The Bot also facilitates medical staff in triaging new cases that may arise. The Healthcare Bot, which is scalable and Azure-based, utilizes artificial intelligence and is a cloud service that can be integrated into websites and applications for access by the general public.
In the field of mechanical robots, Diligent Robotics, a startup creating robot assistants, is developing a hospital droid that can help nurses by performing menial tasks, such as running errands and fetching tools2. The bot, named Moxi, possesses full mobility to navigate through a clinic or hospital’s corridors with ease, and has a flexible arm and hand to reach and grab tools and resources. By taking these small tasks off the hands of nurses, these bots will enable nurses to better utilize their time, and focus on treating and tending to patients. Further, given the shortage of medical staff present at medical centers across the nation, the presence of these bots can help centers operate efficiently and effectively.
Images of Moxi, Diligent Robotics’ hospital robot assistant 2
Understanding the coronavirus’ genetic tree is important for the medical community to devise approaches to stop the spread. The open-source project Nextstrain aims to do just that: Nextstrain utilizes data, sequencing, and visualizations to demonstrate the development and evolution of the coronavirus, which aids pathologists and epidemiologists in understanding how the coronavirus has changed in nature in its spread from one country to another 3,4. While Nextstrain utilizes big data to accomplish its goals of enabling scientists to have a better understanding of the coronavirus, big data and machine learning have also been leveraged to develop therapeutic treatments for the coronavirus. Eli Lilly, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the US, has recently partnered with AbCellera, a biotech company based in Vancouver that utilizes a machine vision and artificial intelligence platform to develop antibody-based therapies for patients 3. Together, these two bio-pharmaceutical companies will aim to utilize antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients to create an antibody-based treatment for the virus. According to AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen, the progress made so far has been promising, “In 11 days, we’ve discovered hundreds of antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current outbreak, moved into functional testing with global experts in virology, and signed a co-development agreement with one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies.”5
The Nextstrain website, which you can visit at: nextstrain.org
The power of quantum computing has also been harnessed to tackle problems related to COVID-19. Canadian company D-Wave Systems is providing free access to its quantum computing cloud service to those who are working on modeling the spread and formulating responses to COVID-19–whether they be diagnostic tools, drugs and treatments, or logistics solutions6. Further, D-Wave has already assembled a group of industry and academic partners, including Volkswagen, DENSO, and Sigma-i Tohoku University, which have projects underway with D-Wave. These partners will serve as troubleshooting points of reference for new teams and organizations that use D-Wave’s Leap 2 quantum computing service that may run into any issues. As the CEO of D-Wave told TechCrunch reporter Frederic Lardinois, “When we launched Leap 2 on February 26th with our hybrid solver service, we launched a quantum computing capability that is now able to solve fairly large problems — large scale problems — problems at the scale of solving real-world production problems…And so we said: look, if nothing else, this could be another tool that could be useful to those working on trying to come up with solutions to the pandemic. And so we should make it available.”6
Image of D-Wave quantum computing systems 6
Not only are companies and organizations active in developing technological solutions to help combat the coronavirus, but university students are also rallying together. At Caltech, the university I attend, one of our machine learning courses next quarter will consist of a COVID-19 machine learning challenge, where groups of 2-3 students will compete to model and forecast the spread of the coronavirus. If such projects and/or initiatives are not already in the works at your university/institution, you can kickstart similar projects and encourage other students to participate. In addition to staying home and washing our hands, we can all fight COVID-19 together with tech!
-Alycia Lee, RTC Fellow 2019