Through digital technology, we’re better equipped than ever to fight a global pandemic

By Ken Hu

Thursday April 30, 2020

A medical staff wearing a virtual reality (VR) goggles checks a patient remotely at a hospital, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country, in Kunming, Yunnan province, China February 24, 2020. Image: cnsphoto via REUTERS
The pandemic has turned the world upside-down, almost overnight. But technologically, we’re better equipped to address this global threat than we were just 15 years ago.

When SARS struck China and 25 other countries in 2003, smartphones didn’t exist, 3G was the wireless communications standard, and home broadband was the exception rather than the rule. Today, we have 4G and 5G, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. These tools are helping to prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease, while helping scientists look for a cure.

Social distancing would be a lot harder without digital technology. Streaming services like Netflix have helped take the edge off of staying indoors while at the same time online shopping – normally just a convenience – is saving lives by allowing millions of people to avoid crowded stores. Online retailers in China have addressed the crisis in innovative ways. JD.com, an e-commerce company, used autonomous robots to deliver supplies to Wuhan’s Ninth Hospital, lowering the risk that JD employees might get infected while delivering much-needed supplies.

Schools are closed, affecting 91% of the world’s students, according to UNESCO. Not long ago, that would have meant that students would miss classes and have to make them up later. But now, teachers can continue teaching remotely. Likewise, tens of millions of people can work from home, helping cushion the pandemic’s economic impact.

In hospitals, technology makes work easier and safer for medical staff. Earlier this year, in just 10 days, Wuhan built two 1,000-bed hospitals equipped with first-class digital equipment. 5G networks allowed real-time sharing of high-resolution medical and video conferencing from remote locations, including ambulances. This helped doctors begin treating new patients almost immediately, saving time and also reducing exposure to the virus.

Technology has also simplified and sped up diagnosis. AI-assisted medical image analysis automates the process of classifying patients as early, advanced, and severe cases of COVID-19. This helps doctors monitor patient conditions as well as the effects of drug treatments. It also lowers the odds of misdiagnosis.

In addition, technology lessens the burden on already overworked doctors. CT scans have been a part of China’s coronavirus testing protocol since early February and are now also being used in Europe. Computer vision can review hundreds of scans in seconds with 80% accuracy, and an “AI + human doctor” review is six times faster than evaluating images manually.

Other than helping doctors test for the virus, AI is supporting scientists who are working on vaccine development and drug screening. The latter involves looking at existing drugs, or those being tested but not yet on the market, to see if they can be used to treat the virus. Because this involves screening thousands of possible drugs, many tech companies are providing researchers with cloud computing resources to help crunch massive amounts of data. This allows AI systems to shorten the screening process from two or three months to several days. Similarly, the UK firm DeepMind, the artificial intelligence subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., has released structure prediction of proteins associated with the coronavirus so that researchers can more precisely target the disease with new drug treatments.

The fight against COVID-19 might feel like a trek through a long, dark tunnel. But there is light at the end. Earlier this week, for the first time in months I was able to enjoy one of my favourite foods, a Wuhan dish called hot-dry noodles. Similar to Corona beer in the West, restaurants serving Wuhan food have been given a wide berth in China for months now. In little ways, we are starting to see rays of hope even in the most harshly struck regions.

Along with the rest of the world, I’m grateful to the brave doctors and nurses who have put their lives on the line – and in some cases, lost them – to help bring this virus under control. Their bravery, together with the right technology, will help all of us get through this.

Ken Hu is Deputy Chairman, Huawei Technologies.

This article is curated from the World Economic Forum.

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