In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have turned to artificial intelligence (AI) as a potential ally in preventing future outbreaks. They have created an AI system that could provide early warnings about perilous virus variants before they wreak havoc on a global scale. The name of this promising application is the Early Warning Anomaly Detection (EWAD) system.
The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been a wakeup call for the world, reminding us just how catastrophic such health crises can be. But what if we had a tool that could help us predict and prepare for such outbreaks? This is exactly what EWAD aims to do. A collaborative effort between Scripps Research and Northwestern University in the US, the EWAD system uses machine learning to analyze vast amounts of data and detect patterns. It then uses these patterns to develop algorithms that can predict future scenarios. The developers fed the AI with information about the genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 variants, the frequency of these variants, and the reported global mortality rate from COVID-19. With this data, the software was able to identify genetic shifts as the virus adapted, which were typically marked by increasing infection rates and decreasing mortality rates.
William Balch, a microbiologist at Scripps Research, explained that the team saw key gene variants appear and become more prevalent weeks before they were officially designated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The technique used in this process, Gaussian process-based spatial covariance, essentially crunches numbers from existing data to predict new data. The scientists tested their model by comparing real and predicted data, proving EWAD's effectiveness at forecasting how measures like vaccines and mask-wearing could influence a virus's evolution. Balch emphasized the importance of considering not just the prominent variants but also the tens of thousands of other undesignated variants, termed the 'variant dark matter'.
The researchers' AI algorithms were able to detect previously unseen "rules" of virus evolution. These findings could prove invaluable in fighting future pandemics. Furthermore, the EWAD system could also deepen our understanding of basic virus biology, improving treatments and public health measures. Ben Calverley, a mathematician from Scripps Research, shared his excitement about the many possible future applications of this system and its technical methods. This groundbreaking research, published in Cell Patterns, holds great promise for the future of pandemic prevention and our general understanding of viruses. It's a testament to the power of AI and its potential to revolutionize healthcare.