Using AI to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic

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2020 will always be remembered as the year that Covid-19 created havoc on everything we knew about. As I write this in September 2020, over 29 million people have tested positive for Covid-19, and nearly 1 million people have died. The world has been turned upside down with national governments placing restrictions on movement, imposing lockdowns, and even in some cases curfews. Businesses have been forced to close (some never to reopen), travel between countries has been severely restricted, and face masks have become a must have accessory wherever you go. Nowhere has escaped, and even countries who were successful in keeping numbers down in the first wave, are now in the middle of a second wave. 

We have learned a lot during the Covid-19 pandemic, and new technologies have come to prominence in the fight against the illness. Here, we look at how we can leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to help contain the pandemic.

AI’s role in public health is still relatively new, but it has already made a significant impact. AI analyzes vast amounts of data from a variety of sources to create predictive models for identifying future disease outbreaks. For example, The ‘Dengue Outbreak Prediction Platform’ was successfully used in 2018 to predict with 80% accuracy the locations of outbreaks of Dengue in Malaysia and Brazil 3 months ahead of time, saving lives, and preventing it from spreading. We could use a similar AI program to help predict where the next wave of Covd-19 would be, so that governments can assign resources. While useful, this approach doesn’t go far enough in the war against Covid-19.

Finding a remote, non-invasive way to identify Covid-19

Covid-19 is already among us, so the big question still remains – how can you diagnose Covid-19 in patients quickly before it spreads too far? How can we get results instantaneously without waiting for results from a nasal swab test?

There isn’t a quick answer to this, but the starting point is with patients who display the symptoms commonly associated with pneumonia. According to the WHO, patients with pneumonia usually have a respiratory rate (RR) of less than 30 breaths a minute, and an oxygen saturation (SpO2) level of less than 90%. Both of these can be measured remotely and non-invasively through remote photoplethysmography (rPPG for short), which measures these vitals from just a video feed of a person’s face.

rPPG measures human heart rate by detecting pulse colour changes in human skin using a multi-wave RGB camera. The technology has advanced in recent years, and can now be used to measure heart rate, breathing, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, neonatal monitoring, and atrial fibrillation and mental stress.

Monitoring all of these vital signs can be done with a simple video feed. This technology could be added to any camera anywhere to get an instant view of people’s general health, even before they have registered feeling unwell. For example, rPPG could be added to cameras at airports to monitor travellers for abnormal vital signs as they pass through key points of the airport (passport control, before checking in, before boarding the plane), preventing the international spread of the disease.

Getting ahead of the game

Most governments have suggested that a high temperature (99 degrees fahrenheit or 28 degrees centigrade) is the point at which people need to get a Covid-19 check. This is not entirely practical because many people will simply dismiss the early symptoms of fever and a cough as a seasonal cold. The longer an infected person delays confirming whether they are sick or not, the more chance they have of infecting other people. What we have seen is that time is of the essence and the quicker people can get diagnosed, the better.

Using rPPG to measure RR and SpO2 is not a comprehensive way to diagnose Covid-19, but it is a great first line of defence. It can be used effectively using existing cameras in airports, hospitals, and other key buildings. As we move into a world forever changed by Covid-19, we look forward to seeing rPPG continue to develop and grow in usage.

Want to know more about how rPPG can be used in your organisation? Contact us to discover how we can help.