AI shows great promise in curbing the spread of infectious diseases. It can help understand disease mechanisms, diagnose illnesses, aid in clinical development, monitor outbreaks and enhance communication. There are certainly hurdles and barriers AI still needs to overcome; but it will play a key role when future pandemics occur.


SwissCognitive Guest Blogger: Zachary Amos – “How AI Could Help to Prevent Future Pandemics”


In late December 2019, as people were wrapping up Christmas vacations and hurrying to catch their flights home, an AI algorithm noticed something strange. A spate of pneumonia cases had emerged near a market in China. BlueDot — the company behind the AI — flagged the outbreak as a potential problem, predicting it would spread internationally. Doctors had noticed the epidemic, too, and quickly raised the alarm. The World Health Organization announced COVID-19’s discovery just nine days later. But what if the world could have acted faster?

How Health Care Leverages AI

Artificial intelligence is a crucial component of disease management. It helps epidemiologists predict and prevent the global spread of illness, forecasting outbreaks by drawing on previous data that engineers have fed it. On a more granular level, it can detect health problems in individual patients. An easily overlooked cardiac issue might jump out to an AI trained to look for unusual heartbeats.

Doctors and AI software noticed COVID-19 almost as soon as the outbreak started, but better technology could potentially stop pandemics in their tracks and avoid global health crises. Here are a few ways AI can help prevent future pandemics.

1. Understanding Disease Mechanisms

Artificial intelligence can uncover how a virus operates. Does it spread via direct contact or droplets in the air? How many other people does an individual typically infect? AI can also predict how the disease will interact with different drugs by generating thousands of potential pharmaceutical outcomes.

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2. Diagnosing Illnesses

A COVID-19 patient’s lungs look different than healthy lungs on an X-ray. A tiny spot on a brain scan may indicate Alzheimer’s disease. These subtleties can slip past the radar even under a doctor’s trained eye, but AI software can help catch them. It can suggest which illness a patient might have based on their bloodwork or identify which women have the highest risk of pregnancy complications.

This greatly aids the diagnostic process, allowing doctors to start treating patients sooner and with the most appropriate medications. Early treatment and quarantine are vital in preventing the spread of disease.

3. Clinical Development

Designing clinical trials, selecting the best sites on which to conduct them, recruiting volunteers and predicting risks are just a few of the ways AI shines in the health care field. AI software can also model countless potential medications by generating different molecular structures. Pharmacists can look through these 3D models and see if any stand out as candidates for clinical trials.

4. Surveillance

AI can monitor and track viruses in real time to calculate people’s risk of infection. For example, video surveillance can aid in contact tracing, where epidemiologists try to determine who is spreading an illness and where. Experts can then warn people who may have come in contact with an infected person, allowing them to quarantine themselves or see a doctor.

Social media may also predict epidemics. AI software can comb through public posts and look for keywords such as “cough” to detect possible outbreaks. It can notice signs that people mistrust vaccines or doctors, helping experts predict where another disease outbreak may pop up. AI can also look through a network of patient files to spot epidemics, help doctors make diagnoses and monitor patients’ recovery after an illness.

5. Public Communications

Widespread misinformation — especially on social media — hampered the global response to COVID-19. AI software can detect and flag potential fake news, bogus cures and other scams before they spread like wildfire. It can delete comments from bots that try to spread false information.

Chatbots can also use artificial intelligence to communicate with patients. If a clinic is overbooked and struggling to answer the phone fast enough — as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic — AI can be the first point of contact with patients. People can then make appointments, fill out forms or evaluate the severity of their symptoms online before going to the doctor, streamlining the process of getting medical help.

Preventing Future Outbreaks

AI shows great promise in curbing the spread of infectious diseases. However, there are some barriers to overcome, such as getting people comfortable with sharing their medical information. Gathering public data raises privacy concerns epidemiologists and doctors must address.

Another, more technical challenge is to streamline data collection across multiple countries. This will help people coordinate their response to disease outbreaks. Overall, artificial intelligence will play a key role in preventing or lessening the severity of disease outbreaks. It’s only a matter of time before AI detects another pandemic, but hopefully, the world will be ready for it next time.

About the Author:

Zachary Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack where he writes about artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and other technology-related topics.