"Once-in-a-century pathogen" is how Bill Gates described Covid-19 in February. Since then, global markets have been decimated, healthcare systems are breaking under the severe duress, cities worldwide are in lockdown, and life as we know it has been drastically altered.
Researchers tell us the current pandemic is akin to what the world experienced in 1918 during the influenza outbreak that infected a quarter of the world’s population. One hundred-plus years later, the world faces a similar invisible enemy that is changing the very fabric of human society.
Fortunately, we have much better tools to detect and get ahead of the current and future pandemics. The world economy has grown due to the benefits of interconnected commerce and information. Tragically, that very feature has been turned on its head and the virus has spread with breathtaking speed and destruction.
So, how can the tech industry respond to the crisis of our lifetime? How can we assemble the data feeds in such a way that provides real-time intelligence on the virus and its spread? How can we pool the resources to make the virus visible to the health care providers and policy makers so that we are making informed decisions on an hourly basis?
Here are some of the ideas the ecosystem's companies can work together rapidly:
Empower data collection
Some of the early symptoms like fever and coughing are indicators of something is wrong, and if multiple people in close proximity (like a nursing home) are all of a sudden getting the symptoms, it should be a red flag. But currently there is no easy way to monitor it on a nationwide basis. There are some services like Kinsa’s connected thermometer or Oura Ring that monitors temperature and other vital signs constantly, but the distribution of such tools is limited. By making these sensors widely available and even mandatory for certain population categories, we can get life-saving early intelligence into what’s happening at both the local level as well as nationally. This early-warning data set can complement the CDC data that comes from hospitals and clinics that is generally a few days late. Data makes the virus visible.
As the data is collected, applying AI techniques will help uncover some of the less obvious patterns that could lead to quicker detection of the genesis of disease clusters, and a quicker response and discovery of new solutions to address a health crisis before it becomes unmanageable.
Furthermore, once someone has recovered from COVID-19 (asymptomatic or symptomatic), they will have the antibodies to fight off any possible new infections from the same virus. The ongoing development of polyclonal antibody tests will be very useful to both the healthcare professionals, policy makers, and employers who might want to bring in such folks to handle consumer-facing tasks in grocery stores and deliveries in the time of emergencies, rather than risking folks who might be more susceptible to getting infected. Combined with the COVID-19 antigen testing, this will also inform on the penetration of individual immunity needed for herd immunity – a necessary first step in slowly relaxing the stay-at-home mandates.
Enable contact tracing
One of the most laborious tasks for the epidemiologists is contact tracing – finding the people that the infected patient might have come in touch with. The process relies on memory and is notoriously error-ridden and in some cases, almost impossible. Contact tracing might work when the case volume is low, but the system is completely overwhelmed once the infected volume spikes and without any draconian measures, contact tracing is always a losing battle.
Smartphones, wireless networks, sensors on the phone, and location-based technologies provide us with an enormously powerful set of tools to automate contact tracing. Contact tracing is used by advertisers and social media companies to send invites and ads. A similar fine-tuned system can create an instant automatic mechanism to track and alert citizens whenever the system is activated. This will slow the spread and protect many in the unsuspecting population. Getting an early indicator of the R0 (average number of people who will catch the disease from a contagious person) is extremely important. When time is of the essence, we should let software do the job.
Some countries like Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and China have already utilized early versions of such a contact tracing mechanism. It needs to become an integral part of the networked society if we are going to be able to manage such outbreaks in the future.
There are no doubts that there is a potential of compromising privacy, and appropriate technical and policy safeguards must be put in place for how the data is used and who has access to it.
Create centralized/distributed database of symptoms, treatments, and outcome
The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading at such a shocking pace that physicians do not have the time to refer to case histories and promising therapies in other parts of the country or the world. Many of the physicians will be “conscripted” into the crisis, and will have had little previous experience with the treatment of pneumonia and the acute respiratory illnesses.
Having a centralized database that could be distributed to the edges of the healthcare network can assist in quick and decisive decision-making. Some of the basic parameters such as demographics, medical history, clinical notes, scans, treatment, outcomes, and other variables can become the primary datapoints that can provide guidance and input in treatment planning. This is the necessary first step in developing a best-practices outcome-based guidance for the disease, and is exactly the kind of problem well-suited for AI.
The techniques refined on this data, combined with automated contact tracing, can be a boon for our healthcare industry worldwide. It is clear that the world needs a communicable disease platform for understanding patterns and maximizing efficiency.
Telemedicine on steroids
I have written about the future of hospitals in a Connected Intelligence world. I expect most of them to become healthcare datacenters where sensors from the human body are streamed for further processing, and one would visit a hospital physically only in extreme circumstances. It is silly to go to a hospital to get your vitals measured once and expect an effective treatment regimen based on one sample.
It is dangerous to go to the hospital with an infectious disease, the treatment of which can be initiated at home. Instead, the future of medicine lies in lessons drawn from connected intelligence data that provides much more continuous stream of biomonitoring and insights to the physicians.
Telemedicine is often thought of as a tool for the rural areas where patients find it hard to reach doctors. While some of the house call medical services are common in emerging markets, they are just starting to get introduced to the general public in the western world. China used telemedicine effectively in diagnosing suspect patients before they could enter the medical system for further processing. In the U.S., apps like Heal have been providing care at much lower cost with a high degree of convenience. Telemedicine should become an integral part of all healthcare systems and hospitals.
Optimize supply/demand and movement
The just-in-time supply-chains are designed for normal times. In a world where hoarding of essential goods and supplies becomes the norm, these links break down to the detriment of the larger society. For an unprepared population, it becomes a Herculean task to just keep the basics in decent supply.
Disruption of the supply of medical supplies and drugs can be fatal. How does one control the surge in demand for surgical masks, ventilators, oxygenation machines, testing kits, and other emergency equipment?
Cities, counties, and states are desperately building their own tools to solicit help of gear piecemeal but there must be a better way to manage nationally or at least statewide. Using software tools, one can get a clearer picture of what’s about to happen to the supply and demand especially if this is integrated with the data collection tools that I discussed above. This process also informs the policy makers how to make the right decisions, rather than flying blind and calling the shots out of desperation and ignorance.
As we have seen, cities and states have issued shutdown orders. While online ordering has been quite effective, it was not designed for such an enormous surge. Even Amazon is falling woefully short on its promises, and its otherwise extremely efficient supply-chain has run amok.
Citizens panicked, and rushed to Costcos of the world to pick up supplies and in the process exposed themselves to more risks. This is especially hard on senior citizens and people with underlying conditions who sometimes wait in the parking lot for hours to summon the courage to go inside the store to pick up items. A simple app that can aggregate availability of goods in the local area, availability of volunteer disease-negative helpers, foot traffic data, and urgency of need – and optimize for minimum risk will be quite useful and help contain the spread and anxieties of the populace.
Stop misinformation and fraud
This is not a new problem. It has become part and parcel of the social media world. However, in a pandemic or a communicable disease outbreak, this can be fatal especially quickly. For example, despite no evidence, some people drinking (and dying from) chloroquine after they read and heard about it on Twitter. In times of distress, scrupulous elements in society will take advantage of the vulnerable and the afraid, trying to make a quick buck on the fear and desperation.
Fake products, fake cures and fake information will flood the social media. Scientific, data, product, disease status, identity fraud will be rampant. The new tools and products discussed above will invariably be attacked and prone to fraud – thus identity-based strategies and mathematically provable source tracking will need to be put in place.
Appropriate permission-based elements will need to be integrated from the start. Physicians need access to aggregate data with the permission to follow up with specific individuals if there is a need. Consumers need access to real-time information that will impact their lives on a daily basis. There is a healthy compromise to satisfy both needs.
Additionally, operators can play an important role in launching information campaigns. It is surprising that the policy makers have not used apps and texting as a vehicle to inform citizens of the changing situation on the ground or the restrictions being placed or the hotspots within the city, all of which are fairly easy to implement technically.
Managing network demand
At the drop of the hat, the world was required to work form home. Home networks became the backbone for education, commerce, and the corporate world. They were not designed to withstand a sustained growth in traffic surges like what we are seeing today. However, thankfully, they have been resilient.
Going forward, we will have to rethink the internet architecture and incorporate edge computing at a faster pace. The transformation is already underway; we will just need to accelerate the pace. Similarly, video conferencing from home will become an ingrained part of the corporate life even as we work our way to normalcy in the next months. Both wireline and wireless network will need to adapt to the new realities of consumer demand and consumption.
Mobile operators, device manufacturers, infrastructure providers, internet players, healthcare professionals, epidemiologists, data scientists, and policy makers all have a role to play in solving the multidisciplinary and multidimensional problem. The good news is that the parts of the solutions already exist, we know how to use location data to provide insights for advertising and commerce. It can be trained to provide insights into disease management and healthcare services. Many of these tools can be built fairly quickly.
COVID-19 will be a clear demarcation point (pre-COVID and post-COVID) on how technology is viewed in the moment of crisis. Our work habits will change, and so will the technology expectations. The pandemic will inevitably cause a lot of damage. It is how we respond that will define the connected intelligence growth curves of the future. With the help of data and new tools, we can provide better insights to our health care professionals, scientists, and policy makers which will go a long way in helping blunt the force of the current and the next pandemic.
Chetan Sharma is CEO of Chetan Sharma Consulting, an 18-year-young management consulting firm, and he is an advisor to CXOs and boards of companies in the wireless industry. Over his 25 years in the industry, he has worked with operators on all five continents and has the rare distinction of advising management teams for each of the top 9 global mobile operators. Chetan has written 15 books on various wireless topics and his research work has helped shape many strategic decisions and dialogue in the industry. He is curator of industry’s premier brainstorming summit Mobile Future Forward. More information at www.chetansharma.com. You can follow his musings on Twitter at @chetansharma.
Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.