COVID-19: AI to the rescue?

 By Shlomo Maital

Today’s daily Haaretz * carries a brief report of how three brilliant Israeli scientists have tackled a pressing problem – the need to know where the COVID-19 hotspots are, in order to focus spatial separation without shutting down the economy of the entire country.

   The three are Prof. Eran Segal, an expert in computational and systems biology, Weizmann Institute, Rehovot; Prof. Benny Geiger, also from Weizmann; and Prof. Yuval Dor, Hebrew University.

     Segal notes that experience from studying previous epidemics, as well as knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, show that the virus spreads through clusters of infection and that early identification of such clusters can help stop the virus from spreading, ot at least slow it considerably.

      We have seen such clusters, or hot spots, in New Rochelle, NY, in Washington State (Seattle), and initially, in Wuhan, China.

       Segal notes that one possibility is to use massive testing, as they did in South Korea. More than 10,000 persons are tested daily there for COVID-19.

     Israel can’t do such extensive testing, at this stage, he notes. Hence, the solution the team found was to ask members of the public to fill out online daily questionnaires, which take less than two minutes to complete, that include details about various symptoms and place of residence, including street and zip code.

     This information will be analyze, Segal notes, using machine learning algoithms that give researchers and the Health Ministry a variety of information. If enough data are collected, the tool will help give up-to-date assessment of the spread of the illness.

     This ‘early warning’ system can help spot these clusters, long before other methods do. The AI algorithms could also determine the effectiveness of public health measures, such as self quarantine, to limit COVID-19’s spread.

     The information, noted Segal, is collected using Google DOCS.   No privacy is violated.

       Segal says we need as many people as possible to fill out the questionnaire, in the initial pilot stage.

       I wonder whether Israel can offer this approach to the US, where testing remains quite limited.

* Haaretz. “Israeli Researchers Hope AI Can Tame COVID-19, and They Want Our Help.” Asaf Ronel. March 17 2020.