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Milan, Italy - February 23, 2020: Coronavirus emergency in Milan, citizens and tourists stroll through the city center wearing protective masks

Can an AI-driven app check if you’re at risk from the coronavirus?

Image credit: Alberto Mihai - Dreamstime

US investigators have said a coronavirus app will soon enable an individual to get an at-home risk assessment based on how they feel and where they’ve been in about a minute, directing those deemed at risk to their nearest definitive testing facility.

According to the team at the Medical College of Georgia in the USA, the app, which is coupled with machine intelligence, will also help provide local and public health officials with real-time information on emerging demographics of those most at risk for coronavirus so they can better target prevention and treatment initiatives.

“We wanted to help identify people who are at high risk for coronavirus, help expedite their access to screening and to medical care, and reduce spread of this infectious disease,” said Dr Arni Srinivasa Rao, director of the Laboratory for Theory and Mathematical Modelling in the MCG Division of Infectious Diseases at Augusta University (AU), also in Georgia.

Rao and Dr Jose Vazquez, chief of the MCG Division of Infectious Diseases, are working with developers to finalise the app. The team said it should be available within a few weeks and will be free because it addresses a public health concern.

The app will ask individuals where they live; other demographics like gender, age and race; and about recent contact with an individual known to have coronavirus or who has travelled to areas, such as Italy and China, with a relatively high incidence of the viral infection in the last 14 days.

It will also ask about common symptoms of infection and their duration including fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sputum production, headache, diarrhoea and pneumonia. Furthermore, the team said the app will enable the collection of similar information for those who live with the individual, but who cannot fill out their own survey.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will then use an algorithm Rao developed to rapidly assess the individual’s information, sending them a risk assessment: no risk, minimal risk, moderate or high risk.

If at any sort of risk, the app will alert the nearest facility with a testing ability that a health check is likely needed. The team also said that if the patient is unable to travel, the nearest facility will be notified of the need for a mobile health check and possible remote testing.

The collective information of many individuals will aid rapid and accurate identification of geographic regions including cities, counties, towns and villages, Rao said.

He also added that it will identify where the virus is circulating, and the relative risk in that region so healthcare facilities and providers can better prepare resources that may be needed. Investigators will also learn more about how the virus is spreading through the data collected.

Once the app is ready, the team said it will live on the augusta.edu domain and likely in app stores on iOS and Android platforms. “It is imperative that we evaluate novel models in an attempt to control the rapidly spreading virus,” Rao and Vazquez wrote in their report.

Technology can assist faster identification of possible cases and aid timely intervention, they said, noting the coronavirus app could be easily adapted for other infectious diseases. Furthermore, they said the accessibility and rapidity of the app – coupled with machine intelligence – means it also could be used for screening wherever large crowds gather, such as major sporting events.

Vazquez noted that while symptoms such as fever and cough are a wide net, they are needed in order to not miss patients. “We are trying to decrease the exposure of people who are sick to people who are not sick,” he said. “We also want to ensure that people who are infected get a definitive diagnosis and get the supportive care they may need.”

The investigators hope this readily available method to assess an individual’s risk will actually help quell any developing panic or undue concern over coronavirus, or COVID-19. “People will not have to wait for hospitals to screen them directly," Rao said. “We want to simplify people’s lives and calm their concerns by getting information directly to them.”

Vazquez also added that if concern about contacting the virus prompts a lot of people to show up at hospitals, many of which already are at capacity with flu cases, it would further overwhelm those facilities and increase potential exposure for patients and staff.

Tests for the coronavirus, which include a nostril and mouth swab and sputum analysis, are now being more widely distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Furthermore, these governing bodies have given permission to academic medical centres such as Augusta University Medical Center – considered to be more “sophisticated labs” – to use their own methods to look for signs of the viral infection, which hospitals will likely be pursuing.

As of this week, around 90,000 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in 62 countries, with China, where the coronavirus has originated from, having the most cases.

The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have said that healthcare providers should obtain a detailed travel history of individuals being evaluated with fever and acute respiratory illness. They also have recommendations in place for how to prevent the spread of the disease while treating patients.

Currently, when people do present – for example, at the Emergency Department at AU Medical Center – concerns about contracting the virus, they are brought in by a separate entrance and escorted to a negative pressure room by employees dressed in hazmat suits per CDC protocols, Vazquez said. He also added that, as of today, all those who have presented concerns at AU Medical Center have tested negative.

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