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Code vs. COVID-19

How programmers and technologists are out-innovating the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the race to track, treat, and prevent the spread of COVID-19, the world’s focus has (rightly) been on experts in the life sciences – vaccinologists, epidemiologists, and other sorts of medical researchers. These are the people, after all, trained in conducting the clinical trials that can ultimately lead to an anti-viral or vaccine. But there’s a second group of innovators fighting this pandemic: Programmers and other digital technologists have been bringing code to bear in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

I’ve been working closely with these brilliant inventors for years, and I’m proud to support them in my role on the Innovative Technology Solutions team at the Gates Foundation. Many were in the midst of other projects when the pandemic hit, but instead of wiping their workspaces clean, they chose to figure out how to adapt their ongoing work to fight the virus. Their work, in a sense, became “covid-ized.”

At the Gates Foundation, our goal is to help these new technologies enter the fight against COVID-19 as quickly and responsibly as possible. What does that mean? First, these tools can and must be developed and deployed in a way that respects digital privacy and personal autonomy, which is why our partners focus on features like anonymized inputs and decentralized data storage. Second, they must be fully accessible to everyone—no matter where they live or how much they make. Which is why we think about affordability from the very beginning.

With that in mind, here are some of the tools and technologies our partners are developing to fight COVID-19.

Data Science against COVID-19

The Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence is a nonprofit located in Mumbai, India. In the past, they’ve designed cutting-edge tools to help combat tuberculosis and malnutrition, including a smartphone app that can help community health workers estimate a baby’s weight without a scale.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, Wadhwani AI has moved on to new inventions. They’re working on a tool, for instance, called "Cough against COVID" with Stanford University. The tool could potentially determine if someone is infected from COVID-19 based just on the sound of their cough. To be clear: The cough sound is only used to indicate that further diagnostics are needed. The tool can’t diagnose COVID-19 by itself. But it could be a very useful way to figure out who needs a test.

Andrew Trister quote

From an old disease to the newest

Malaria is a very old disease—so old that Herodotus wrote about it in the 5th Century B.C. But it’s still affecting more than 200 million people every year, virtually all of them in low-income countries. Audere is a Seattle nonprofit that designs open software solutions to public health problems, and they’ve been developing a better way to test for this ancient foe. Audere’s smartphone-based technology allows health workers to administer a simple diagnostic test with a dipstick, then take a picture of the dipstick using a phone, and get the results very quickly, with an error rate of less than two percent. (The test can also be applied to HIV.)

This technology was intended for field studies later this year, but when Seattle became the first site of COVID-19 community spread in the United States, Audere quickly switched tracks. They developed a program called “Navigator.

Ultimately, the goal is to have Navigator facilitate testing for COVID-19 in the way it does for malaria, but until COVID testing materials are widely available the app’s focus is on tracking the health of essential workers—and protecting them from the virus.

Here’s an example of how it works: Doctors and nurses from a specific hospital department securely login to Navigator each day and use the app self-report how they’re feeling. The software then analyzes all that information and lets the hospital know which medical professionals are likely able to work and how to best meet staffing needs.

Already, Navigator is already being used in Seattle and Bangladesh.

Anti-COVID-19 apps in Korea

Korea Telecom (or KT) is South Korea’s largest telephone company. The company is standing up a public health consortium—a group of local hospitals, scientists, and other innovators who are using technology to find new methods to respond more quickly to infectious diseases.

One initiative they’re exploring are mobile apps that can help screen for diseases, like COVID-19, and determine how fast and far they’re spreading within a particular region. KT is working with a group called “Mobile Doctor,” which before the pandemic focused on connecting physicians with parents when their kids developed fevers. Now, KT is using Mobile Doctor’s knowledge about regional disease transmission and spread to build their app, “CovidCoach,” which can alert public health officials about new outbreaks of COVID in their communities.

Ultrasound for everyone

Butterfly is a pioneer that devised a low-cost hand-held ultrasound device that can display its findings on a smartphone, in effect giving people all over the world access to affordable medical imaging. Originally, these scanners were used to help detect pneumonia in underserved communities. Now, they’re used to test for a range of illnesses in the field.

While they cannot detect COVID-19, they can help health workers assess lung damage, and are now being used in hospitals—and field hospitals—to help diagnose patients and determine best treatments.

Andrew Trister is Deputy Director for Digital Health Innovation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About the Author

Andrew Trister
Andrew Trister leads the Innovative Technology Solutions team's efforts to leverage integrated mobile technology and data systems at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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