By Laura Osman
OTTAWA – Canadian researchers who were among the first to predict the spread of deadly COVID-19 say the world needs to change the way countries monitor and react to disease outbreaks.
Dr. Kamran Khan set out to create a “smoke alarm” that would detect epidemics throughout the world when he created the BlueDot software that predicts a pandemic.
Khan and his team of 50 experts used big data and artificial intelligence to warn the world about the possibility of a serious virus outbreak three days before the World Health Organization, even though they knew the signs earlier.
Waiting for an outbreak to be announced usually takes too long, the University of Toronto professor of medicine and public health said, and that information often takes a long time to reach the medical community and the community.
The world is changing, he said, and disease emerges with greater frequency and has a greater impact.
Big data and artificial intelligence can provide a glimpse of disease around the world in real time, making people move faster to reduce new outbreaks.
It’s time we start using it, for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, Khan said.
At this point, the story of BlueDot is famous all over the world.
The software explores hundreds of thousands of information sources in 65 languages around the world throughout the day, every day, looking for signs of problems.
Khan received the first indication that something was wrong in Wuhan, China, on New Year’s Eve. The algorithm takes a blog post in Mandarin that describes the pneumonia outbreak that involved around 20 people.
Within seconds, the program can filter anonymous international flight schedules to predict 20 places where outbreaks might spread.
The outbreak described by the algorithm has serious similarities to the 2003 SARS outbreak. Khan and his team submitted their findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal on January 6.
When the virus appeared in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 13, a smoke alarm sounded.
“If you see a case appearing outside Wuhan in another country, he tells you that the outbreak is much larger than a few dozen cases. Maybe hundreds, maybe thousands,” Khan said.
“That’s when we are quite worried.”
Of the 20 sites predicted by BlueDot, the virus can spread, 12 of which are the first destinations to report a new corona virus outbreak.
Embers landed in Canada, and the house caught fire.
While Canada’s health care system has struggled even to count the number of cases confirmed manually throughout the country due to an ancient data collection system, Khan’s team in Toronto has used their technology to measure how well people have held fast to public health advice.
Using anonymous cellphone data, they have tracked how many people moved when health officials urged them to stay at home.
Khan calls this the “fire extinguisher” function of big data during the pandemic, which allows public health authorities to target their efforts where they need it most.
“When there are only so many people, your human resources in the public health sector are limited, you can’t be anywhere,” he said.
As Canada gets further from the top of the first wave of pandemic, and people start moving across the country and around the world again, smoke alarms will become important, Khan said.
“We will think about introductions from other parts of the world and try to ensure that the embers are finished as quickly as possible,” he said.
This time, he hopes the government, institutions and individuals will be able to take smarter steps faster.
“We must use the latest data and digital technology to our advantage to do that,” he said.
What we do with information also needs to be changed, he said.
Usually when a new outbreak is reported, public health officials find out in advance. They share information with the government, who then share it with the medical community and eventually the public and industry become aware.
The information cascade means a delayed reaction.
“If we want to be successful, we must empower the whole community,” Khan said.
And if COVID-19 has taught us something, everyone needs to work to put out fires together, he said.
The Canadian Press report was first published on May 25, 2020.
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