Private firms lead the fight as technology comes to rescue

Navjit Singh | Updated: April 13, 2020, 1:01 IST

How technology is used to curb the Covid-19 menace.

In the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, a lot of countries around the globe have turned to the technology companies for providing necessary information and services which would eventually help them in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. The technologies such as big data, cloud computing, supercomputers, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, thermal imaging, and 5G are proving their worth and efficiency to the world in coping up with the 7.8 billion people on the Earth. Moreover, the traditional methods of increased hygiene, self & forced quarantines, and enforced global travel bans also rely on technology, but how technology is doing its magic?

The AI-powered helmets that can automatically record the temperatures and display information of the pedestrians on a virtual screen using facial recognition. This high-tech headgear is also equipped with an infrared camera which produces sound if anyone has a fever in the 16ft radius of the police officer in China. 

Death proof Robots are also landing in the battlefield against coronavirus, saving lives of medical workers by delivering medications, patrolling & cleaning infected areas, leading patients in exercises, and even performing dance numbers to give a dose of entertainment to quarantined patients in China.

To limit the spread of coronavirus effectively, Danish company UVD Robots are going to ship self-driving disinfection Robots to Chinese hospitals which are capable of disinfecting and killing viruses and bacteria autonomously, using ultraviolet light without exposing medical staff to the risk of infection.

“As members of the global community, it will be irresponsible of us to sit on the fence, panic, ignore facts, or fail to act. We need to take action now' 

These words by the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma suggest that the private sector should perform its social duty in the welfare of society alongside the Government, especially in the times of global pandemic, thus keeping aside their profiteering motives.

The worst corona outbreak outside China has been experienced by Italy which is also battling the pandemic with the help of technology, or to be precise, Additive Manufacturing, better known as 3D printing. Lonati Spa, a local 3D printing firm redesigned a Venturi Valve utilising a 3D printer which connects oxygen masks to the respirators used by the coronavirus patients suffering from respiratory difficulties. 

The White House Office of Science and Technology is also seeking assistance from more than 60 tech companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google, IBM, Apple, Uber in harnessing data related to location and movement of the users to effectively track the coronavirus patients and the ones who seem to develop symptoms of the disease using the health information available in their smartphones. By integrating location data with disease, researchers can estimate the rate of community transmission and anticipate about where the disease might spread next. The appropriate data obtained from researchers would allow the health officials to allocate the human and economic resources at the next hot-spot of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Facebook has launched co-location maps which use data about mobility to forecast where different groups of people are likely to cross paths. Subsequently, the researchers can rank which communities are most at risk, and therefore make recommendations. 

We are living in a highly globalised world where information flows at the speed of 5G across the continents. Unfortunately, fake news also travels at the same speed or even faster in the time of crisis. To combat the spreading of fake news or misinformation regarding Covid-19, many tech companies are introducing new tools to share reliable information to encounter myths. Chinese tech giant, Tencent, launched a myth-busting platform called ‘JiaoZhen’ which helps in discerning the fact from myth. Ping An's ‘AskBob’ is a doctor's AI assistant which offers a one-stop portal for virus related updates and advice.

Facebook rolled out a new coronavirus information centre on top of the news feed that would give regular updates on Covid-19 directly from credible sources such as WHO and CDC. Every post related to the coronavirus will be scrutinized through the network of 55 fact-checking websites which would also downgrade the feed if the claim is found false. Twitter also updated its safety policy by banning the tweets which could place people at higher risk of transmitting Covid-19 because of encouraging 'false or ineffective treatments, preventions and diagnostic techniques'.

The first thing most countries are doing or have done in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic is to lockdown the affected areas, and limit the mobility of people as much as possible. This has affected the production in factories badly, disrupting the whole supply chains in the world, and thereby leading to a shortage of essential medical equipments. In China, the private sector corporations such as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Xiaomi came ahead to fill the vacuum of supply chain logistics of materials including surgical masks, disinfectant, protective suits, and safety goggles for the front line medical workers. Many corporations have donated large amounts of healthcare, edible, and other kinds of supplies to the affected areas along with setting up the makeshift assembly lines to produce additional masks and disinfectants. 

Chinese companies did some extraordinary work in developing infrastructure for the infected patients when the number of patients increased suddenly. Notable examples were the construction of two - 1000 bed and 1600 bed - hospitals in under 10 days in Wuhan. The State owned corporations made sure that there will not be any disruptions in power supply to key facilitates. Huawei, a telecom company which is alleged of spying the foreign nationals for the Chinese government through its newly developed 5G technology, according to US Department of State, has jointly set up a 5G-enabled remote video diagnostic centre with Chinese telecom companies, enabling medical professionals to conduct remote online consultations with potential patients. 

Alibaba is committed to a policy of reaching to every house possible in the affected areas at the time of crisis with its grocery chain HEMA (Freshippo), which is opened for ‘only business’ and not ‘profiteering’ from the consumers, hence keeping the prices of commodities at the lowest and the stocks available. Its logistics arm teamed up with dozens of others to create a 'Green channel' for fast and safe delivery of medical items. Its foundation donated testing kits, surgical masks, protective suits, and face shields to the poor countries hit with the Covid-19.

The Distilleries in the western world are adding sanitizer to their ranges of rum and whiskey, and handing it out free. The Scottish brewery, BrewDog has also gone into sanitizer production whereas Pernod Ricard, a French beverages company, donated pure alcohol.

India's case - Start-ups at the forefront

In India’s case, the graph of infected patient has now started to grow upwards and these trends definitely do not signal for a pleasant future in anyway. The demand for testing kits is rising and the Government has already sought help of the private sector in producing kits on a large scale. Government resources are already crumbling in the initial stages of the pandemic with the problems like heavy shortages of ventilators, irregular supplies of mask, personal prevention equipments for doctors, face shields, & other medical supplies, not having sufficient infrastructure such as appropriate number of beds and quarantine centers for suspicious patients, under production of thermal scanners and testing kits.

To reduce the burden on the public health care system, ICMR had narrowed down the testing criteria to just those who travelled from affected areas, and the relatives of those people who have come in contact with them but this process is not proving sustainable in fighting the pandemic. In the country of 48,000 ventilators, majority of them already occupied, private resources and private sector involvement is not only a requirement but a necessity.

Country's progress can be measured by how easily new innovations can come up in the market during the time of crisis. A slew of Indian homegrown startups came up to the surface in the market providing the range of solutions from prevention mechanisms and testing to monitoring and manufacturing medical equipment in their efforts to combat Covid-19.

OneBreath, a Bengaluru - based startup has developed some affordable and portable ventilators, targeting the rural area where these facilities are not still readily accessible. To keep the diagnosed patients engaged at home and quarantine facilities, startup named DayToday has developed a care management programme that would cater their post-diagnostic activities such as health checks, diets, and follow up tests, thus reducing the burden on the healthcare system.

Dozee’s device can perform medical-grade remote monitoring of a vulnerable patient's heart health and respiratory rate along with other vital parameters at their homes, in make-shift ICUs, or also in hospitals that are short of health workers. Backed by Bill Gates foundation, the startup is going to produce around a lakh pieces per week to meet the demands from the health industry which is its highest priority. 

A tool developed by Sequoia-backed Qure.ai can automatically read and interpret chest X-ray scans for Covid-19 in seconds which would help the clinicians to measure how much the patient's lungs have been affected and enable them to monitor disease progression more effectively. Another startup, Log 9 backed by Sequoia is on the government's E-marketplace, made a device that can completely neutralize Covid-19 pathogens from the surface of masks, hospital PPE, and medical equipment in just 10 minutes. 

Bengaluru based Vee Technologies and Sona College of Technology together are developing two apps; first, 'Corona-scan' which would help health officials to map the individuals who are in close proximity with an infected person, and second, 'Corona-support' which helps the health authorities to get the accurate information about positive cases.

In the fight against pandemic, the most crucial thing is to save the lives of health workers and doctors who are combating at the forefront and protect them from getting infection. For that, Sawai Mansingh Hospital in Jaipur is conducting trials on a humanoid robot which would perform activities like delivering medicines and food, measuring temperature, sanitising the hospital premises where Covid-19 patients are getting treated, screening the people entering quarantine facilities and collecting garbage from patients rooms.

Kerala-based startup Asimov Robotics developed a three-wheeled robot that can be used to assist the patients in quarantine facilities and isolation wards. 

Reliance foundation, owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, has developed India's first state-of-the-art facility, a 100 beds Centre at Seven Hills Hospital in Mumbai, fully dedicated to the treatment of positive Covid-19 patients. It is also producing around a lakh masks per day and personal preventive equipment. Reliance also announced to provide free fuel at its petrol pumps for emergency vehicles. 

Personal Care and hygiene products giants like Hindustan Unilever, Godrej, and Patanjali are reducing prices and ramping up the productions of goods to meet the demands. Automobile manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra is using its assembly lines to produce ventilators instead of automobiles. 

Diageo India is going to produce hand sanitizer in massive scale in its 15 manufacturing units in order to fill up the supply line along with donating 1.5 lakh face masks to five state governments. 

Testing the sufficient amount of samples is the biggest challenge for India right now which has to be increased in the next few days which requires testing kits on a mass scale. India's first indigenous Covid-19 testing kit developed by Mylab Discovery Solutions got validated by National Institute of Virology, Pune last month and it is planning to ramp up the production of testing kits taking upto 2 Million per week which will reduce the shortage of kits in the country.

In the hour of need, both State-owned and private companies, whether a giant or a start-up, have joined hands to combat the spread of the Coronavirus.