Tuesday, March 24, 2020

COVID-19, networks and decentralized diagnostics

The Korea Times carried an interesting article today entitled  "COVID-19 outbreak to shed new light on decentralized diagnostics."  It so happens that I'm teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses (online of course!) this semester on networked communication technologies, with a focus on the Internet and related digital networks.  Learning more about the Internet as the largest engineered construction project in human history encourages us to think about the future role that networked digital technologies will play in the world, including their role in combating pandemics like the current coronavirus outbreak.
The Korea Times article uses the example of the blood cell diagnostics firm Noul to highlight the "importance of decentralization in diagnostics, which can help the world to detect diseases faster and prevent epidemics more effectively."  It goes on to explain that "Conventional blood cell diagnostics requires processing of collecting venous blood, smearing and staining and microscopy analysis. These processes are mostly done manually by experienced technicians, thus taking anywhere from one to 66 days for results and requiring large labs, a significant workforce and facilities for water waste."
Noul has combined the whole process of blood cell diagnostics into the device ― which is the size of a small conveyor toaster ― and can produce test results in 15 minutes. (click on graphic for a full size image) "Instead of the conventional labor-intensive sample preparation, miLab tests blood with cartridges, which uses solid chemicals instead of liquid reagents for staining. With a few drops of finger-pricked blood in the cartridge, miLab automatically does the smearing, staining, digital microscopic imaging, and AI analytics. By using different cartridges, the device can diagnose various other oncology diseases including breast and thyroid cancers."
Digital networks may indeed play an important role in public health by enabling smart, decentralized manufacturing of needed equipment, such as the ventilators that are currently in such short supply around the world.  The New York Times and other media have already reported on the use of 3D printers to make copies of ventilator parts to help health care providers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases in Korea and selected countries

Johns Hopkins is doing the world a great service by publishing data on the spread of COVID-19.  I found this graphic particularly informative since I live in South Korea.

South Korea Testing with Hospital "Phone Booths"

Phone booths with public payphones used to be a common sight in Korea back in the 20th century, but have largely disappeared.   Today, as the following video from VOA illustrates, one hospital has introduced phone booth-like testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus.  Innovation indeed.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

How South Korea is beating the Coronavirus

As a follow up to my last post, I highly recommend this article in TheDailyBeast.com.  I am one of many expats who feel safer being here in South Korea right now than I would feel almost anywhere in the U.S.  As TheDailyBeast article notes, mass testing is the key to Korea's success thusfar.   Hopefully Korea's biotech companies can quickly gear up to export testing kits to the U.S. and all around the world.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Korea's use of computers, big data and robots in controlling COVID-19

As shown in the accompanying chart (click for a full size version) from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the daily number of new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has decreased markedly over the past 12 days.  The bars in the chart represent the daily number of new cases, while the blue line depicts the cumulative total cases, which is beginning to level off.
Recent reporting by international media including CNN and the BBC indicate that rapid and large scale testing is part of the reason for Korea's success. The  Financial Times published a bar chart comparing Korea's volume of testing with that of other countries. (click for a full size version)

The CNN report, in particular, caught my eye.   It described the role of Seegene, a Seoul-based biotechnology company, in the development and production of test kits.  The report began by noting that "Before there were any cases of novel coronavirus confirmed in South Korea, one of the country's biotech firms had begun preparing to make testing kits to identify the disease."  South Korea has a strong commitment to biotechnology, much of it centered here in the new city of Songdo.  I have a birds-eye view of Samsung Biologics from my apartment on the Incheon Global Campus, just a 10 minute walk away.
The CNN report on Seegene went on as follows. "In the basement of Seegene's headquarters in Seoul lies the key to the company's coronavirus success. There the company houses an artificial intelligence-based big data system, which has enabled the firm to quickly develop a test for coronavirus. Tests known as assay kits are made up of several vials of chemical solutions. Samples are taken from patients and mixed with the solutions, which react if certain genes are present. Without the computer, it would have taken the team two to three months to develop such a test, said Chun. This time, it was done in a matter of weeks."
In addition to the use of its own powerful computer and big data, Seegene made use of robots to automate the testing process, dramatically reducing the time it took.
Korea's approach to combating the novel coronavirus reminded me of reading Craig Venter's autobiography, A Life Decoded:  My Genome My Life.  Venter's approach to mapping the human genome depended upon investment in computing power and was dismissed by many leading scientists at the time.  It seems to me that Korea's approach to COVID-19 demonstrates what may be accomplished by leveraging digital technologies to attack the problem.