Tech and the pandemic

Topics Coronavirus | Technology

Increasing use of technology in the war against Covid-19 is among the few bright spots in a bleak situation. Emerging technologies are proving to be especially helpful in a context of scale, safety and  speed. The response to Covid-19 is as much prevention as cure. Broadly, the deployment of technologies has been for tracking, testing and treating. Not all of these have been activated in India but are important examples to learn from. 


The first step is to track. Countries such as South Korea have used GPS tracking to keep an eye on potential Covid patients using mobile phones. Volunteers from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet have come together in the US to create a website that will map the emergence of new cases. The Government of Karnataka has launched a similar project where those in-home quarantine are expected to upload a selfie every hour as proof of their location. The GPS tagged pictures will prevent unnecessary movement. The national Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has launched a tracking app “Corona Kavach” for mobile phones. It hopes that users will upload their information and track date on virus locations using the app. Drones are being used in several cities in India to track movement of people during the lockdown. The Chhattisgarh government is using drones to identify and spray disinfectants on contaminated sites. 


As the number of cases spiral, testing at scale is a challenge that can be met with high-end computing and artificial intelligence (AI). The worlds top technology companies, academic institutions and government bodies in the US have come together to set up the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. They will collectively share resources for joint projects on bioinformatics, molecular modelling calculations and epidemiology tests on Covid-19 to come up with vaccines against it. Done with super computers, the consortium hopes to achieve results in weeks rather than months and years. The collaborative effort is reflected in the research community too. The Covid-19 Open Research Dataset has been created by Allen Institute for AI. It is a “a free resource of over 45,000 scholarly articles, including over 33,000 with full text, about Covid-19 and the coronavirus family of viruses for use by the global research community. Another effort is Covid-Net, an open access neural network which is collaborating to identify Covid-19 in lung scans. This initiative will use data and images from across the world. 


Several Indian companies have begun to manufacture affordable ventilators that don’t depend on imported components. Principal Scientific Adviser of the Government of India and head of Covid-19 R&D Taskforce says that Indian organisations are also collaborating. Private and government bodies are sharing information and resources to deploy tech-based solutions which are both short and long term. Department of Biotechnology and Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research are among the organisations which have come together to work with the private sector. This includes online training of health workers at the forefront of treatment. The Corona Virus Treatment Acceleration Programme launched by the US FDA is focusing much on data analytics. Biotech and pharmatech companies will receive fast-track clearances on their Covid-related research. “The FDA’s efforts to facilitate the development of Covid-19 therapies are focused on expediting the development of data on these medical countermeasures,” the organisation stated. 

In the next few weeks, each country will have to depend on its internal collaborative efforts to counter the Covid-19 crisis. Even as global collaborative efforts roll out in the US and Europe, similar domestic coordination among various expert bodies will prove to be important for India.


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