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.

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