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Tech & Innovation
APR 7, 2020

In the Fight Against Coronavirus, Strategy First, AI Later

By Dr. Giulio Toscani
Unsplash/NASA

Being an Italian living in Spain in these terrible days of COVID-19, I have a front-row seat to the plight of Mediterranean families. People here are living longer because of their healthy diet, sharing their homes with younger siblings…

And getting infected at a tremendous rate.

This is not just a Mediterranean problem, of course, as a friend from Wuhan told me recently. Southern European habits are similar to those in her hometown, where the rising cost of apartments obliges young couples to live with older relatives.

Just as this is not a localized problem, it is also not a recent one. The Spanish flu killed at least 20 million people only 100 years ago, 49% of whom were aged between 20 and 39. We had spent centuries in an immunologically organized society characterized by borders and fences.

Then came capitalism.

Then came globalization.

Then came the digital revolution.

Our society is more technologically advanced than it was during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and it’s easy to assume that that would be enough, in itself, to protect us. But before we can even consider a technological solution, we have to ask…

What is the strategy?

Testing Is Key, but Testing Who, Where, and When?

The only way to collect coronavirus info is through tests—expensive tests that come to about USD$25 each. What’s more, they’re increasingly unavailable.

According to Professor Mazzuccato’s opinion piece in The New York Times on March 18, the vaccine will be even more expensive.

Only those countries that did tens of thousands of tests like Korea and Bahrain, or were very strict from the beginning like Singapore, have begun to see a flattening infection curve.

This is proof that strategy comes first. Not technology.

Korea’s strategy, for example, was to massively invest in testing. This incorporated a simple technology: mobile testing labs that sped up testing, limited infection zones, and caught infections before they could get too far.

In the US, the strategy is less clear, though research projects are plentiful.

A joint project by Microsoft Research, the National Library of Medicine, and the Allen Institute for AI is cross-referencing 29,000 papers for patterns. The resulting COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) is available to the public for free.

Wired reported that Kaggle, a platform that runs data science competitions, is creating challenges around ten key questions related to the coronavirus.

AI algorithms might help discover possible treatments or factors that make the virus worse for some patients.

Another proposal consists of using AI to cross-reference patient X-rays for patterns.

These are all very real possibilities with the technology available today, but without a strategy to guide them, efforts will remain unfocused and progress slow.

Of course, there’s another problem in the US: many people lack health insurance. Danni Ashkini reported in Time that her bill for COVID-19 treatment came to a whopping $34,927.43. She is just one of 27.5 million uninsured Americans.

That issue will need to be incorporated into the US strategy, as well.

Local Strategies vs. Global Solutions

Each country, even regions within each country, is reacting and getting infected differently. The resulting frustration leads to political friction and finger pointing, like the case of Rio de Janeiro’s governor disagreeing with the Brazilian president on what to do to contain the virus. Or the South Korean outbreak that was accelerated by a “cult” church.

Reasons for the spread can be cultural, as well, like the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, Louisiana, which is possibly responsible for the world’s fastest virus growth as of March 26. They can also be socio-economic, like India’s lockdown, which could lead to starvation among millions of people.

The solution, however, must be global.

Regardless of the region, beating coronavirus requires complete coordination based on game theory. That is to say, if all countries but one take up isolation and quarantine, it’ll be people from that one who keep spreading the coronavirus.  

But isolation and quarantine are not enough.

The solution is prevention and cure, lockdown and vaccination, local strategy and global solutions—simultaneously.

The superposition principle in quantum mechanics is the state of a system being in different states at the same time. Every government has to develop a local lockdown strategy of its own to target and protect diverse social groups. The actual cure, however, will be global. The vaccine will be the result of global teamwork, as is already demonstrated by the Australian lab that recreated the virus outside of China—something made possible by Chinese scientists unprecedently sharing the coronavirus genome sequence.

If such generosity continues, we will certainly find a way to pull together for a global strategy, leveraging the technology of our time to overcome the threat of COVID-19.