With cautious optimism, Premier Doug Ford announced on April 27 that Ontario had indeed begun to flatten the COVID-19 curve, laying out initial plans for re-opening the economy. Ford said the province would eventually open in three stages, with organizations (still unnamed) that can “immediately meet” public health guidelines opening first. Each stage will be assessed over two to four weeks before progressing to the next.
It’s an admission that things are getting better. Still, Ford maintains that all Ontarians must be committed to honouring restrictions to avoid another spike in cases and deaths. Dr. Kamran Khan is in full agreement. “I am hoping that, in two or three months, Canada will be where China is today — very little domestic transmission and a growing number of immune citizens,” he says. “Everyone is scared right now, but we have to remove passion from the decision-making process and act based on the evidence at-hand,” Khan says.
Dr. Khan is founder and CEO of Toronto startup BlueDot, the organization that famously warned its clients of the viral outbreak nine days before the World Health Organization made an official statement. In a recent appearance on 60 minutes, he explained the AI-fuelled power of “outbreak science,” and the crucial importance of responding to early warnings. Before the pandemic, BlueDot had no clients in the United States. Today, state governments across the country are seeking Dr. Khan’s tech and expertise to weather this current storm and prepare for future crises.
The public health community remains firm on what we must do right now: maintain physical distancing throughout the population; invest in healthcare-system infrastructure and research; and get the right information to the right people at the right time. “The good news is with advancements in big data and analytics, we can now spread information — empowering front-line workers and saving lives — faster than the spread of any disease,” says Dr. Khan.
To that end, BlueDot uses human and artificial intelligence to track COVID-19 and 150 other infectious diseases and syndromes worldwide in near-real time. Official public health sources, moderated health reports, mass media (over 100,000 articles per day in 65 languages) and the world’s flight itinerary data are analyzed on a daily basis, reducing the time to detect and assess the risk from an outbreak from weeks to seconds, and predicting whether the pandemic will spread as near as your local park, or as far as the other side of the planet. All citizen data remains anonymous and are aggregated to protect privacy, and empower timely, effective government policies and decisions.
“For the past several years, the industry has been espousing the opportunity of AI to positively impact health outcomes,” said Ying Tam, managing director of health at MaRS. “We are starting to see companies like BlueDot making that opportunity a reality.”
In terms of the current crisis, Dr. Khan is cautiously hopeful that Canada is starting to get a handle on the virus. “We’re seeing the epidemic curve start to flatten,” says Dr. Khan. “We’ll come out of this.” However, Dr. Khan’s optimistic assessment comes with a stable of caveats and uncertainties. “This won’t magically disappear in June just because the weather is warmer,” he says. It is true that cooler, drier climates can make the membranes in your mouth and nose more permeable to viruses, thus increasing the chance of illness. And, indeed, doctors have hypothesized that humid climates (like, say, Toronto in the summer) may force coronavirus-carrying mucus droplets to fall to the ground faster, and therefore affect fewer people. But because the world is filled with people who have no immunity to COVID-19, Dr. Khan believes that the spread of the virus will continue throughout the summer.
The nature of humans’ immunity to the coronavirus is also up for debate. In similar viruses like influenza, recovered patients generally become immune, or if infected again, experience milder symptoms. With COVID-19, the vast majority of the globe still lacks immunity, and it is unknown if infected persons who have recovered can be re-infected, and if so, under what circumstances. The only other way to ensure immunity is to administer effective vaccines, but — thanks to the gargantuan cost of drug development and slow grind of clinical trials — Dr. Khan believes we’re still at least a year away from having a viable one that can be mass produced and administered.
When asked about the biggest hurdle to eradicating COVID-19, Dr. Khan is candid about his frustration. “People of all stripes tend to discount things that they can’t immediately see,” he says. “Worse still, we quickly forget about the tragedy and lessons learned when threats subside.” For Dr. Khan, everyday people and politicians alike must change the way they think about health and develop a culture of readiness, not merely reaction. “In peacetime, it’s very hard to convince governments and organizations to support preparedness, even against threats we all can agree are inevitable.”
Partnerships across sectors and the sharing of information will always be essential in any pandemic. Dr. Khan reminds us that because nations are so interconnected, global society is only as strong as its weakest link, so it behooves Canadians to both invest not just in our own readiness, but also in other countries, as a form of enlightened self-interest.
BlueDot serves as an example of that kind of meaningful collaboration, says Dr. Khan. His team of 50 employees is made up of a wide array of experts: doctors, data scientists, geographers, veterinarians, software developers, epidemiologists and more. Bound by the company’s mandate for social good, they’ve come together to share knowledge, not to hoard it. “We had to learn to speak each other’s languages; understand each other’s perspectives,” says Dr. Khan.
Members of the Canadian tech community are working tirelessly to bring the COVID-19 crisis to a decisive end. Read their stories in the MaRS magazine.