U of T infectious disease expert’s AI firm now part of Canada’s COVID-​19 arsenal

March 31/2020

By Geoffrey Vendeville at U of T News

On New Year’s Eve, the software company BlueDot pushed out a notification to its customers about a mysterious illness that appeared in Wuhan, China.

The start-up, which grew out of Dr. Kamran Khan’s research at the University of Toronto, combines natural language processing and machine learning to gather insights on the emergence and spread of infectious diseases around the globe. BlueDot was the first to warn the world of a potentially dangerous new illness – now known as COVID-19 – ringing the alarm before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did on Jan. 6 and before the World Health Organization followed suit three days later.

Toronto-based BlueDot, founded by U of T’s Kamran Khan, was the first to spot the novel coronavirus outbreak with its AI software and is now helping to guide the Canadian government’s COVID-19 response (Photo by Jorge Uzon / AFP) (Photo by JORGE UZON/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s more, BlueDot’s big data analytics platform was able to predict the next 11 cities where the novel coronavirus would hit.

In the months since BlueDot spotted the anomaly, the novel coronavirus has spread to six continents, infected more than half a million people and crippled the world economy.

“We didn’t necessarily know it would be of this size,” Khan, a faculty member in the Faculty of Medicine and at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, tells U of T News about the outbreak-turned-global pandemic. “But what we did know is that it had the ingredients.”

This week, the Canadian government announced it would use BlueDot’s disease analytics platform to support modelling and monitoring of COVID-19, as well as to guide government decision-making.
Khan, who’s also a scientist and infectious disease specialist at St. Michael’s Hospital, says BlueDot will provide the federal government with insights and intelligence to help combat the virus – in part by using anonymous location data from hundreds of millions of mobile devices to see how the public health response is working.

BlueDot is starting to produce metrics that allow the government to understand where social distancing has been effective if people are following public health advice and where to deploy valuable resources.

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