A few weeks ago, I emerged from the hotel room where I had been quarantined for two weeks after returning from a trip to South America.
I got off easy compared to the small business owners who are bleeding cash as the economy remains at a standstill. But even they have it easy compared with COVID-19 patients and the heroic doctors and nurses who risk their lives caring for them.
The pandemic has turned the world upside-down, almost overnight. But technologically, we’re better equipped to address this global threat than we were just 15 years ago.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.
Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.
The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.
As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.
When SARS struck China and 25 other countries in 2003, smartphones didn’t exist, 3G was the wireless communications standard, and home broadband was the exception rather than the rule. Today, we have 4G and 5G, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. These tools are helping to prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease, while helping scientists look for a cure.
Social distancing would be a lot harder without digital technology. Streaming services like Netflix have helped take the edge off of staying indoors while at the same time online shopping – normally just a convenience – is saving lives by allowing millions of people to avoid crowded stores. Online retailers in China have addressed the crisis in innovative ways. JD.com, an e-commerce company, used autonomous robots to deliver supplies to Wuhan’s Ninth Hospital, lowering the risk that JD employees might get infected while delivering much-needed supplies.
Schools are closed, affecting 91% of the world’s students, according to UNESCO. Not long ago, that would have meant that students would miss classes and have to make them up later. But now, teachers can continue teaching remotely. Likewise, tens of millions of people can work from home, helping cushion the pandemic’s economic impact.
In hospitals, technology makes work easier and safer for medical staff. Earlier this year, in just 10 days, Wuhan built two 1,000-bed hospitals equipped with first-class digital equipment. 5G networks allowed real-time sharing of high-resolution medical and video conferencing from remote locations, including ambulances. This helped doctors begin treating new patients almost immediately, saving time and also reducing exposure to the virus.
Technology has also simplified and sped up diagnosis. AI-assisted medical image analysis automates the process of classifying patients as early, advanced, and severe cases of COVID-19. This helps doctors monitor patient conditions as well as the effects of drug treatments. It also lowers the odds of misdiagnosis.
In addition, technology lessens the burden on already overworked doctors. CT scans have been a part of China’s coronavirus testing protocol since early February and are now also being used in Europe. Computer vision can review hundreds of scans in seconds with 80% accuracy, and an “AI + human doctor” review is six times faster than evaluating images manually.
Other than helping doctors test for the virus, AI is supporting scientists who are working on vaccine development and drug screening. The latter involves looking at existing drugs, or those being tested but not yet on the market, to see if they can be used to treat the virus. Because this involves screening thousands of possible drugs, many tech companies are providing researchers with cloud computing resources to help crunch massive amounts of data. This allows AI systems to shorten the screening process from two or three months to several days. Similarly, the UK firm DeepMind, the artificial intelligence subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., has released structure prediction of proteins associated with the coronavirus so that researchers can more precisely target the disease with new drug treatments.
The fight against COVID-19 might feel like a trek through a long, dark tunnel. But there is light at the end. Earlier this week, for the first time in months I was able to enjoy one of my favorite foods, a Wuhan dish called hot-dry noodles. Similar to Corona beer in the West, restaurants serving Wuhan food have been given a wide berth in China for months now. In little ways, we are starting to see rays of hope even in the most harshly struck regions.
Along with the rest of the world, I’m grateful to the brave doctors and nurses who have put their lives on the line – and in some cases, lost them – to help bring this virus under control. Their bravery, together with the right technology, will help all of us get through this.