Medicine, biology, genetics, pharmacology, zoology, but also environmental sciences are of course in the front line in the fight against Covid-19. But, in the face of the coronavirus, and unlike the previous major epidemics that have struck the planet since the beginning of this century - avian flu, SARS, HINI flu, Ebola - the world has for the first time massively mobilized a new type of tool that is destined to play a major role in the prevention and control of pathogens of all kinds, robotic and digital tools.
In the global fight against the Coronavirus pandemic, all human, scientific and technological resources have been mobilized and, every day, new and valuable knowledge is accumulating on the nature of this confusing virus, which is much more complex than previously thought. New therapeutic solutions are being developed and tested and new tools are being used to fight this invisible but formidable adversary on all fronts..
The drones in battle order
In Italy, in Trevolio, a small town in the north of the country hard hit by Covid-19, a drone equipped with thermal sensors measures the temperature of the inhabitants from a distance. " We raise the drone to 25 metres and when the drone spots people, we lower it to establish the temperature of the people with more precision, " explains Matteo Copia, mayor of the Lombardy municipality.
With this simple and flexible tool, the police can accurately and efficiently check remotely whether a person has a fever or not. In the event of " a body temperature that seems abnormal, we send a patrol to take a temperature reading with an accurate thermometer to establish whether the person was in a mandatory quarantine that they have violated, in self-containment from which they have been released, or if they have any health problems, " explains the Mayor of Trevolio.
It should be pointed out that the inhabitants of Trevolio, faced with the hecatomb they suffered, immediately accepted willingly to be controlled thanks to this promising technology, which is used under the strict control of the police and municipal authorities.
In France, many cities, including Paris, Marseille, Montpelier, Toulouse, Nice, Metz, Nantes and several local authorities, including the Grand Est, used drones for the first time, both to remind the population of the containment measures and to identify the irresponsible behaviour of those who braved the containment.
In all these cities, feedback shows that these UAVs are proving to be very effective auxiliaries in enforcing containment measures in the best possible way.
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But drones can also be used to fight the pandemic directly. In Australia, researchers at the University of South Australia, in collaboration with Draganfly, a Canadian company, have developed a drone capable of fine detection of respiratory infections in crowds. These scientists and engineers have developed a facial recognition algorithm capable of inferring the heart rate and respiratory rate of patients from images taken and transmitted by this drone. This highly sophisticated software also integrates, thanks to thermal cameras, the measurement of temperature and the automatic analysis of gestures, such as sneezing or blowing one's nose. This dynamic detection system will have the capacity to detect a significant percentage of people potentially infected by Covid-19. " Our UAV and its software will be a very effective tool for early detection of Covid-19, or any other epidemic, and will be able to determine the proportion of affected people in a population, " says Professor Javaan Singh Chahl, who leads the research program.
A new generation of robots
In China, a team using 14 robots took care of patients at Wuhan Hospital in early March. These robots took their temperature as soon as they entered the hospital, and brought the patients meals and medicines. They were remotely controlled using a digital platform and connected wristbands worn by the hospitalized patients to continuously measure their vital parameters.
Faced with this highly contagious virus, hospitals have also turned to a new generation of robots, which, I am sure, will very quickly become widespread in our health establishments and Ehpad, germicidal robots, designed to quickly and completely disinfect rooms and premises, eliminating viruses and bacteria by various means. Two of the main manufacturers of this type of robot, the American Xenex and the Danish UVD, have seen their orders explode in recent weeks.
In France, the firm Shark Robotics has just successfully tested a decontamination module, the "Rhyno Protect", which has been added to one of its all-terrain robots, capable of carrying out many types of rescue missions. With its tank of disinfectant product, this robot can clean 20,000 square metres in three hours, spraying micro-droplets at 360 degrees, without flooding the room.
These robots, which prevent human personnel from being unnecessarily exposed to pathogens, represent a real breakthrough in the field of deep disinfection of passageways, waiting rooms, corridors and elevators. For the moment, for safety reasons, these robots only work in empty places and are equipped with sensors that stop their operation at the slightest movement. But in the near future, these robots will carry enough artificial intelligence to be able to move safely among doctors, caregivers and patients in complex environments. They will also become much more versatile and capable of performing many tasks, which will reduce the workload of medical and hospital staff, allowing them to focus on their core functions.
In Italy, a country particularly affected by the pandemic, hospitals have also seen the arrival of another category of robots, more specifically for medical surveillance and telepresence. The Circolo hospital in Varese, Lombardy, for example, has equipped itself with six robots to collect and transmit biomedical data on infected patients to doctors. The robots are humanoid in shape and have a ten-hour autonomy. They are equipped with a touch screen, which allows patients to record messages and send them to doctors. Thanks to these electronic aids, the hospital has been able to limit direct contact between patients and nursing staff, thus significantly reducing the risk of infection and lightening the overall workload. Initially, these robots were intended for use in the personal services and reception functions, but they could easily be adapted to perform their new tasks of monitoring and transmitting information in the hospital environment.
In Nancy, the first test of all the occupants and caretakers of the Ehpad Notre-Maison allowed us to verify that there were no cases of Covid-19. But the great novelty of these tests is that they were carried out in less than 24 hours thanks to the first Covid-19 detection robot used in France.
It is a machine manufactured by the Chinese firm YHLO, and can reveal the presence of IgM (early) and IgG (mature) antibodies. In addition to the speed, the other advantage of this robotic detection is that it provides more accurate results than a test giving only a positive or negative response. This robotic sniffer is also expected to spread rapidly in health care institutions and Ehpads, given its remarkable performance.
AI for geolocation and surveillance
Another very effective method for reconstructing population movements at the scale of a country, region or metropolis is the use of data from geolocation. This very abundant data has the advantage of being automatically generated each time a person uses a mobile phone, and is already being used for epidemiological research purposes. For example, Orange transmits so-called "anonymised" data to Inserm, which does not include information that can identify individuals, but is nonetheless valuable for accurate, real-time epidemiological monitoring of a population.
In France, it is the StopCovid application that is coming out on June 2nd, which uses data from Bluetooth wireless technology. This application is inspired by the project selected by the consortium of European researchers, called PEPP-PT ("Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing"). The idea is to identify and warn all people who have been potentially exposed to the virus, following contact with people who are infected or suspected of being infected.
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To use this application, everyone will be free to download a digital tracking application, which will provide a unique identifier to each user. This application will be able to detect, thanks to Bluetooth, nearby mobile phones, also equipped with the same installed software. This system will be able to estimate both the distance between several people and the contact time. If a person equipped with the application turns out to be a carrier of the coronavirus, he or she will have to make himself or herself known to the authorities by providing the history of his or her application, which will make it possible to immediately alert all the people he or she has met.
It is of course intended, for obvious privacy reasons, that this StopCovid application can only work on a voluntary basis; it can be uninstalled if the user so wishes. However, according to a study by the British University of Oxford, at least 60% of the population needs to use such an application for it to be really effective. It is important to point out that the app announces that the data will be completely anonymised: it will therefore be impossible to know who has contaminated whom. The app will fully comply with European law on personal data, and the CNIL, which is very cautious on privacy issues, will ensure that all data collected will be deleted after total deconfinement.
Germany has already launched a similar digital tracking application for Covid-19. Called Corona-Datenspende ("corona data donation"), this application, presented on 7 April by the Robert Koch Institute, will also be used on a voluntary basis. For the moment, however, the system developed with the company Thryve only works when connected to "intelligent" watches or fitness bracelets such as Fitbit, Garmin or Polar.
This tool, which is expected to be used by ten million Germans in the first instance, will make it possible to map the spread of the virus on the basis of a multitude of geographical, bodily and biological data. The application is not, however, intended, for the time being, to warn people that they are ill or to inform contact persons. Instead, it will provide an accurate real-time picture of the effectiveness of the measures taken to contain the epidemic, which is obviously a valuable assessment tool for health authorities and public authorities.
In a second step, another tracking application will, again with all the necessary privacy safeguards, collect proximity data between volunteers via Bluetooth and warn them when they have been in close proximity to a person infected with Covid-19.
The digital giants have clearly understood the value of this controlled digital tracking and Apple and Google have announced a partnership to enable, still on a voluntary basis and under strict government control, the digital tracking of individuals who have been in close proximity to those infected with the coronavirus. The aim of this technological cooperation agreement is also to limit the spread of the disease while preserving the secrecy of information. Users of Apple smartphones, equipped with iOS software, or Google smartphones, equipped with Android, will be able to exchange information via Bluetooth to enable tracking of human contacts and alert other users. Since the beginning of May, owners of mobile phones using these two operating systems can also share content and applications from public health authorities.
Another example of a digital tool that will become widespread in the fight against epidemics is the AI system developed by the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Based on the WHO's finding that two-thirds of infected people were coughing, this application, called " Coughvid ", should be available by the beginning of June; it analyses coughing noises transmitted by telephone and can deduce, with a high degree of reliability, of the order of 70%, whether or not there is a Covid-19 infection.
To use this tool, simply download the application and then record your cough, so that you can instantly know the machine's verdict. EPFL researchers stress, however, that this tool, which will become more and more powerful as it becomes more and more popular, is not intended to replace medical examinations and other biological screening tests. Nevertheless, it is a simple, quick and easy way to carry out an initial "triage" of potentially infected patients.
Another research team, involving American and Iranian scientists, has established a correlation between the spread of the virus and a specific temperature-humidity combination. According to these researchers, the Coronavirus is influenced by very specific weather and climate conditions and it would therefore be possible, by designing a relevant numerical model, to predict and anticipate the spread of the disease.
A few days ago, American and Chinese researchers announced that they have developed a tool using artificial intelligence to predict which coronavirus patients will develop serious pulmonary complications. " The idea is to allow doctors to treat certain patients as a priority, to avoid overloading health systems on the brink of collapse, " says Megan Coffee of New York University's Grossman School of Medicine. The algorithm was developed using data from two hospitals in Wenzhou, China. It integrates many biological and clinical parameters and can diagnose a risk of ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) with up to 80% accuracy.
In the United States, IBM has announced the availability of a cloud-based molecular explorer, which provides researchers with the ability to study Covid-19 therapeutic candidates or potential molecules capable of forming the basis of a future treatment. This very powerful tool provides a graphical interface that researchers can use to filter therapeutic candidates based on the probability of finding similar molecules.
DeepMind, Google's artificial intelligence division, is working on the protein structure of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, using the sequencing of its genome carried out by Chinese researchers. With its AlphaFold tool for generating 3D models of proteins, which works in deep learning, DeepMind wants to accelerate the modeling of covid-19, to better understand its flaws and design a vaccine faster.
In Canada, the DarwinAI company has developed a neural network that can detect signs of Covid-19 infection with X-rays. While the use of patient specimens is the default method for coronavirus screening, the analysis of chest X-rays could offer an alternative to hospitals that do not have enough staff or screening kits to treat all patients quickly. The system has completed its "deep learning" from more than 17,000 images, and will soon be able to distinguish between infected patients who can be maintained at home and more fragile patients requiring hospitalization.
Our country is also fully engaged in this global competition to use digital tools to accelerate biological research and the development of new therapies. The young innovative company MAbSilico, based in Indre-et-Loire, wants to revolutionize the design of new biomedicines thanks to computer models using artificial intelligence. " The average validation time for biotherapies is 8 years and 9 months ", says Anne Poupon, co-founder of this young company, which was founded by INRA in Tours Nouzilly in Indre-et-Loire, and still heads the CNRS Biology and Bioinformatics of Signalling Systems (BIOS) research team.
MAbSilico's ambition is to drastically reduce the steps in the different preclinical phases for the discovery and characterization of therapeutic antibodies, using open data, by combining them with numerical simulation from a DNA database to guide the discovery, characterization and optimization of new biomolecules. " Our solution makes the next phase of in vitro testing more accurate, and therefore faster, " says Vincent Puard, President and co-founder of the company. " While this stage lasts on average 29 months, this computer work, in silico, will take only 5 days, " he adds. MAbSilico's tools have already been marketed to some twenty French and American academic research and biotech players.
Technology, robotics, digital: at the service of health?
This rapid global overview shows to what extent computer and digital robotic technologies and tools now play an irreplaceable role, in synergy with biomedical research, in the understanding, prevention and active and targeted fight against the Coronavirus pandemic.
What this pandemic, as violent as it was unexpected, also shows us is that these new tools are still far from reaching their full potential and that they will play an even more decisive role in preventing and combating future epidemics which, tomorrow, will inevitably threaten and destabilise our societies as a whole once again.
It should be recalled that the WHO, in a report published two years ago, estimated that a new virus such as the Spanish flu virus (now known to have killed more than 50 million people in 1918-1919) could kill 80 million people in a few days, if the world is not prepared to deal with such an epidemic with a whole range of coordinated means (see the GPMB report of September 2019).
To avoid such a catastrophe that would ruin the world economy for decades, and from which some countries would not recover, we must have the lucidity and common sense to understand that the massive investments we need to make in these new digital and robotic tools (which will at the same time serve to significantly improve the efficiency of our health systems, the work of doctors and carers and the quality of life of our elders, thanks to personalised telemedicine) are nothing compared to the immeasurable human, social and economic damage that a pandemic equivalent to the terrible Spanish flu a century ago would have caused...
René TRÉGOUËT, Honorary Senator - Founder of the Senate Foresight Panel
(Source: RT Flash)