How artificial intelligence can accelerate our response to global pandemics

Dr. Alan Bernstein is president and CEO of CIFAR and was the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) during the SARS epidemic

As president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2003 when an earlier coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1, swept through Canada, I had a unique vantage point from which to view Canada’s response to an unprecedented threat to public health.

Today, as I watch Canada’s response to COVID-19, it’s striking to me how much we’ve learned about the science and policies needed to address such crises. We are fortunate. By and large, Canadians trust their governments, and our ministers are responding admirably to the crisis. I’ve been impressed with the consistent and clear communication, the co-ordination with the provinces and the rapid implementation of very significant financial packages aimed at dealing with the economic, social and health consequences of the pandemic. I’m proud that Canada has a socially cohesive society in which we place a high value on community well-being.

SARS was a painful, but instructive, dress rehearsal for COVID-19. If we are to save as many lives as possible, we must develop and implement a co-ordinated response together as a nation. We must continue to listen to our scientists and make decisions that are informed by evidence.

The fact that only a few short months ago very few people were aware of a strange new illness in Wuhan, China, is difficult to imagine now. Indeed, it was BlueDot, a Toronto-based artificial intelligence and Big Data company, that accurately predicted the emergence of a new virus in Wuhan back in mid-December. The AI algorithms and data-processing power BlueDot used were not available in 2003. The speed of the global scientific response to COVID-19, and the openness of the scientific collaboration, are light-years ahead of what was available to us during SARS, in part thanks to advances in technology and AI that we could only have dreamed of then.

With its power to filter and parse vast arrays of disparate data, AI has become an essential tool in this global struggle by enabling pattern-discernment, real-time tracking and analysis of the pandemic. In 2017, CIFAR, the Canadian-based global research charitable organization that I’m proud to helm, was appointed by the Government of Canada to develop and lead the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the world’s first national AI Strategy. This visionary step has put Canada in a leadership position to take immediate action in the global response to COVID-19.

Right now, CIFAR is working with governments to provide immediate advice on using AI for COVID-19 response strategies. Earlier this week, CIFAR convened a virtual meeting across five countries that included 80 top scientists in public health, epidemiology, and vaccine and drug development, along with senior representatives from government and international NGOs and funders, to explore how AI can accelerate our global pandemic response. We’ve also launched fast-moving CIFAR AI catalyst grants that will stimulate and support quick responses from the AI community, which is eager and poised to help.

The responses to COVID-19 we’re seeing around the world are only possible because of the leaps in understanding made by scientists able to pursue fundamental, long-term research. The techniques for both sequencing a virus’s genome and testing for its presence began as relatively obscure investigations, eventually leading to two Nobel Prizes in their day. Today, they are undergraduate-level lab exercises. Similarly, the novel strategies in machine learning and AI that emerged through largely curiosity-driven inquiry are proving to be life-saving innovations by accelerating our global response to COVID-19.

Today’s crisis is a stark reminder of the need to invest seriously and sustainably in science for the long-term, long after this crisis has ended. As I wrote in The Globe back in 2003 during the SARS epidemic, you don’t wait until fire has broken out to decide you need a fire department. Canadians continue to require – and deserve – the expertise of a well-funded and ambitious scientific community that is the envy of the world. They deserve a scientific community that can tackle the immediate challenges facing Canada and humanity while also pursuing the long-term, curiosity-driven questions for which there are no immediate or obvious applications, but that pay off with life-saving dividends when a crisis hits and create new tools to advance prosperity and well-being for better times.

Think of the science that led to the diagnostic test for COVID-19, determining the sequence of the virus, and today’s rapid and sophisticated approaches to drug and vaccine development that hold hope for us all. All started with long-term, fundamental science with no immediate or even obvious applications. Canadians deserve no less.


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