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.

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