Geographies in Depth

This is how companies such as Facebook and Google are joining the fight against coronavirus

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Jack Ma is donating $14.4 million to help find a vaccine. Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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COVID-19

  • Tech giants are preventing the spread of false information.
  • The search for a vaccine is everyone’s top priority.
  • Jack Ma has donated $14m to help find a vaccine.

Some of the biggest names in the global tech space have joined the fight against the coronavirus.

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Led by a number of Chinese industrial and commercial giants, they’re working with government agencies, clinicians and academics to share resources and expertise. They are also working to safeguard reliable public information - and some have made financial contributions to ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the disease and find a vaccine.

Face the facts

Facebook has set its sights on misinformation relating to the virus. Some misleading claims have been shared many thousands of times. But now the social networking company has said its fact-checkers are debunking false claims, with some posts being flagged as inaccurate or removed altogether.

Meanwhile, search engine giant Google has started grouping key information from the World Health Organization (WHO) together on search results pages. Anyone searching for the term ‘coronavirus’ can easily find reliable sources separated out from the other results.

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Gene genie

In addition to helping ensure people have the correct information at their disposal, some tech firms are using their expertise to predict how the virus will spread.

Chinese firm Alibaba announced last week it was partnering with Beijing’s Global Health Drug Discovery Institute in the fight. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI), the two organizations plan to develop an open-source platform to track the virus as it spreads. Alibaba is also making some of its AI tools available to other medical and research bodies, free of charge.

Chinese search engine Baidu has also offered its services. Like Alibaba, Baidu has extensive cloud computing capabilities and experience in AI; its LinearFold algorithm has been made available to coronavirus researchers for free, too.

Baidu says this algorithm can build predictive models illustrating how the virus is likely to mutate in a greatly reduced timescale – from 55 minutes to 27 seconds.

Understanding the virus’s genetic makeup is key to developing a vaccine that can successfully target Coronavirus, also known as 2019-nCoV. Researchers from Beijing and Wuhan obtained a series of 2019-nCoV genome sequences from nine infected individuals. That made it possible to say with certainty that this is a new virus, even though it is similar to two types of SARS viruses found in bats. It also enables scientists to say with certainty that a virus has passed from one person to another.

Coronavirus family tree
The 2019-nCoV family tree Image: American Association for the Advancement of Science

Additional help and support

Donations of funds and resources have also been made by businesses and individuals from China and beyond.

The Chinese scientific journal database, Chongqing VIP Information, is making academic papers free during epidemic prevention efforts.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $10 million – half of which is going to China. The other half will be used “to assist the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in scaling up public health measures against 2019-nCoV among African Union member states.”

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is donating $14.4 million through his foundation to help find a vaccine. That is in addition to a $144 million fund set up by Alibaba to pay for medical supplies for Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.

The majority of coronavirus deaths have so far occurred in China. Efforts to restrict travel, including the closure of 10 of the 13 crossings into Hong Kong, may go some way to halting the spread of the virus. But containing it is just the first step. Finding a vaccine remains the primary goal.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthHealth and Healthcare SystemsFourth Industrial Revolution
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