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International Roundtable on AI and COVID-19

1. Introductory Remarks 

Alan Bernstein opened the meeting by articulating its key goal: to discuss challenges in slowing and stopping the COVID-19 pandemic, and identifying where AI can play a role in addressing some of the most pressing questions.  Peter Singer reiterated the World Health Organization’s message about the need for rapid testing and contact tracing, in addition to physical distancing, in containing this pandemic. Samira Asma pointed out the significant gaps in the current reported data, for example, in terms of sex and age desegregation.  Mona Nemer emphasized the importance of articulating what kind of data is needed, the accessibility of this data for researchers, and the need for ideas and approaches on how to exit from this crisis.

2. Theme: Public Health/Mathematical Modelling 

The group identified that lack of access to high-quality, high-dimensional data was a major limitation of research right now.  We need to be collecting and curating much larger and multi-dimensional data sets and sharing those internationally and we need to address the policy issues around the use of those data sets for research and health system planning.

Two broad families of data are currently needed: 1) epidemiological data, to understand how the disease spreads (stratified by sex, age, location, etc.); and 2) clinical data, to understand how cases evolve, so we can better plan for resource allocation within healthcare systems. This includes disaggregated anonymized case history, comorbidities, etc. One challenge is the types of data that are needed for countries at different stages of the epidemiological curve; the needs can change quickly.

WHO is considering refreshing its data sharing policy and what should be the global standard in such an emergency situation.

Testing needs to be done in a much more comprehensive way, massively scaled up across Canada and around the world. Data on things such as the number of positive and negative test results need to be collected and made available in order to get closer to an idea about population-level trends of this pandemic.

A priority right now is to couple the prediction modelling of the disease dynamic with our health system capacity. The choke point for most health systems is ICU bed capacity, and our healthcare systems will drown quite quickly in the face of exponential growth in the spread of the virus.  There is a stark gap between the data that is available to governments and what is available to epidemiologists and modellers. A secondary concern is surveillance -- how do we keep tracking the disease when we know we are not able to test everyone? This data will be important for a cyclical strategy where we can press the “gas pedal” on and off for measures such as physical distancing.  Predictive models to, for example, quantify where testing is needed will be critical in the next 2-12 months.

It is estimated that many countries are currently reporting less than 20% of their symptomatic cases, so there needs to be a way to track mild community cases. This kind of real-time data will be useful for designing peer-to-peer AI apps for contact tracing and maybe even to encourage behavioural change to reduce risk. Singapore has now rolled out an app for contact tracing, which would be worthwhile to be modified and deployed globally as soon as possible.

AI could help for the following public health purposes:

  • Disease surveillance - how can we track disease activity (beyond testing) during social distancing to reduce ICU burden

  • Case prediction models - the likelihood of someone having COVID before test results are available, to help with prioritizing patient beds

  • Mortality risk - for example, to decide which patients should be prioritized for ventilators

  • Assessing clinical displacement - what is the impact on patients who are not receiving clinical care for other illnesses during this pandemic and what are the implications over the increasingly longer term

  • Tracking how patients can be moved between different health regions or hospitals based on different demands / system stress

There is a need to look beyond traditional public health data in central repositories to “non-traditional” data such as surveys (to ask if people are changing their behaviour) or Big Data from apps such as Citymapper. Platforms such as Facebook and Google have very high resolution data on user location and movement, but there are current legal and privacy hurdles that prevent the sharing of such data. Some platforms such as Google TakeOut and Uber allow users to download their own data and voluntarily share with researchers -- this could be a useful model. Other possibilities that may be worth exploring include programming digital assistants such as Alexa to use cough as a wake word, or to geotag internet searches as a symptom checker, but all of these have legal and ethical issues that need to be tackled.

Organizations such as CIFAR and NSERC want to help as much as possible with these initiatives and coordinate and connect researchers in public health, AI, mathematical modelling, etc.

By the end of this week, Element AI will provide full-text access to the recent CORD-19 dataset within a (beta) semantic search engine front-end developed internally, to allow researchers to identify similarities across articles or individual research results. Their goal is to then progressively integrate additional unstructured and structured datasets to this engine, and enable asking natural language questions against them.

In South Korea, there were difficult questions initially about how to organize data for immediate intervention and future planning. When cases began to skyrocket, the central health authorities had no capacity to coordinate, but data (such as those on mortality) from different sites are now linked. Interdisciplinary researchers are beginning to analyze this data using models, to inform diagnostic practice and the best way to handle patients in critical condition.

Serological tests based on antibodies with rapid turnaround (10-15 min) are about to be rolled out, first in South Korea. A better understanding of immunity will help with predicting a second wave of the disease, as well as potentially to identify an immune cohort of health workers.

3. Theme: Biology, Drug and Vaccine Development  

From the industry perspective, several vaccine candidates are currently being studied at an accelerated pace, but it will still take 12-18 months to deploy to the population. Helpful applications of AI for drug and vaccine development would include:

  • Prediction models to help manufacturers accurately assess how much vaccine to manufacture to ensure equitable access and the right number of doses to protect at-risk populations

  • Using AI to unravel large/complicated datasets that could indicate correlates of protection or biomarkers of harm

  • The ability to model vaccine impact to make decisions on coverage and deployment

Drug cocktails have been known to be helpful in treating coronaviruses. The modelling of drug cocktails is challenging with limited methods for looking at combined data sets, so the capacity offered by AI would be very useful.

The MIT team develops AI tools designed to help identify or generate compounds against viral, bacterial or other similar threats. Regarding COVID-19 specifically, in order to contribute in the short term, their goal is to search for effective and safe therapies from among already approved drugs or those that have already passed phase 1 clinical trials. In particular, they are looking for effective combinations or cocktails of such drugs. For larger initiatives, Wellcome Trust, Mastercard & Gates Foundation have launched a joint effort to accelerate the screening of therapeutics for COVID-19. Currently, only more traditional screening approaches are being used, and AI would significantly accelerate analysis of the data.

A team  headed by Alán Aspuru-Guzik is using AI to work on the following:

  • Scaling up the production of current small molecules in pipeline (synthesis routes for them)

  • Developing surface coatings and new soaps to remove the virus

  • Attacking a specific receptor

Gerry Wright from McMaster University and Michael Tyers from Université de Montréal have been working with Yoshua Bengio to apply AI toward drug development. Ways that AI may contribute to drug development include chemical structural modelling to build compounds; interrogation of genetic or protein-protein interactions; and correlation of clinical and cellular data to study off-target effects and adverse reactions.

JEDI (Joint European Disruptive Initiative) is preparing a competition in the field of COVID-19 drug discovery that will combine molecular dynamics and machine learning.

AI could also help to determine whether existing drugs can be repurposed.  Anti-inflammatory drugs may be effective in reducing the mortality from pneumonia. Clinical trials with several IL-6 inhibitors are currently ongoing or being planned, but the benefit or harm will be unclear until then (e.g., corticosteroids were used against SARS, but were later found to be harmful).

We can make an effort to understand coronavirus and treatment from domestic animals and other animal models, including Rhesus macaques, which are recapitulating the disease much like humans.

A team led by Bo Wang is collaborating with researchers at Sunnybrook Hospital who have isolated SARS-CoV2 viral particles to study the genetics of the virus, trace transmission and predict mutations that may lead to a second wave of the infections.

A current major limitation is synthetic chemistry capacity, as many university labs are currently closed and unable to produce and examine potential treatments. Individual universities and funding agencies are examining the possibility of reopening some labs and mobilizing research. The Chief Science Advisor of Canada will be discussing this with the U15 universities.

4. Theme: Clinical Trials Design 

The WHO announced a large global trial, called Solidarity, to find out whether any promising existing medications (including antivirals, interferon beta, and chloroquine) work against COVID-19.  Participants of this group are encouraged to think about how AI can help in this effort.

One difficulty with extrapolating from clinical trials in the Global South to countries with G7-type demographics is their younger population distributions, which may be affecting disease severity. However, it is currently unclear if this age distribution of COVID-19 cases being observed right now is due to the distribution of comorbidity (such as chronic diseases, smoking). AI could be helpful in teasing these factors apart. Machine learning can also help with tackling effect heterogeneity in clinical trial design.

5. Theme: Health System Capacity and Resilience

When looking at regions that seem to have made better progress in containing COVID-19, such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, we need to disentangle the relative contribution or effectiveness of different public health strategies. AI could be helpful in teasing these apart, for example, by analyzing between-region variability.

AI could be used to optimize patient intake, queuing and circuit/flow within hospitals to avoid contamination of non-COVID-19 patients. AI can also be useful for high-resolution modelling for resource planning by hospitals -- not just for physical resources such as PPEs, but also for scheduling for doctors and nurses to avoid burnout. Another potential application of AI may be to help in understanding the global supply of testing -- sourcing of reagents, transportation, prediction of surges in demand, etc.

6. Policy Implications

The participants of this working group came to a consensus that access to data is critical.   One key issue is to balance privacy concerns with the benefits of having real-time data on the whereabouts of individuals from companies such as Facebook and Google in an urgent emergency situation such as this one. One recommendation was opt-in with an app using existing software (e.g., Facebook, Google) and allow people to volunteer information.  This is a conversation that will need to involve ethicists as well as legal and policy experts.

Policy and health systems experts at the Roundtable also pointed out the importance for researchers to engage with public health organizations and health ministries about their actual needs at this time. Economics is also another area of concern, and data is needed for devising an exit strategy from this crisis.

7. Next Steps

CIFAR will invite call participants and others to join sub-committees to work together.  One area of interest is drafting a statement emphasizing the importance of sharing COVID-19 data across nations and organizations and working collectively to accelerate progress toward fighting this pandemic.

An AI COVID-19 Briefing for Canadian policy-makers on the outcomes of today’s Roundtable is taking place on March 24th from 1-2pm EDT and attendees of this working group are welcome to join.

If there are collaborations that arise from today’s meeting, attendees are encouraged to keep CIFAR informed and should not hesitate to make a funding request.

CIFAR will coordinate future calls and meetings and will administer a survey to determine frequency of future meetings, additional invitees, and possible sub-committee participation.

8. Resources Identified by Roundtable Participants

Singapore contact-tracing app TraceTogether

Yoshua Bengio: Peer-to-peer AI-based tracing of COVID-19

WHO data sharing policy

Center for Data and Computing – has existing partnerships providing data for developing apps for mobility tracing, happy to collaborate

Crowdsourced symptom report and tracking sites: (USA) (Canada)

Updated COVID info from Korea

Adam Kucharski: Rough initial estimates of case under-testing/reporting

Gates - Wellcome - Mastercard initiative for coronavirus therapeutics screening 

WHO Solidarity trial

South Korea hospital bed triage

Economic impact of social distancing / WFH

MIT initiative on drug discovery

Appendix A: Participants in the Roundtable

Alejandro Adem

Samira Asma
World Health Organization
Assistant Director-General for the Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact Division

Alán Aspuru-Guzik
University of Toronto; Vector Institute
Professor of Chemistry and Computer Science; CIFAR Lebovic Fellow Bio-inspired Solar Energy Program;
Canada CIFAR AI Chair, Vector Institute;
Canada 150 Research Chair in Theoretical Chemistry

Regina Barzilay
Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Faculty Co-lead of J-Clinic,
MIT Initiative for machine learning in health

Marc Bellemare
Google; McGill University; Mila
Research Scientist; Adjunct Professor; Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Yoshua Bengio
Université de Montréal; Mila; CIFAR
Professor, Department of Computer Science and Operations Research; Scientific Director; ACM Turing Award Laureate; Canada CIFAR AI Chair, Program Co-Director of the Learning in Machines & Brains Program

Alan Bernstein
President & CEO

John Brownstein
Boston Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Chief Innovation Officer/Professor

Sean Caffrey
University of Toronto
Executive Director, Strategic Initiative Development, Office of the VP Research & Innovation

Nick Cammack
Head of Snakebite Priority Area

Masha Cemma
Office of Canada's Chief Science Advisor
Policy Advisor

Nicolas Chapados
Element AI
Chief Scientist

Dan Drexler
Klick Health
Managing Director

Audrey Durand
Université Laval/Mila
Assistant Professor in Computer Science and Software/Computer/Electrical Engineering; Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Rosalind Eggo
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Assistant Professor

Kim Elmslie
Public Health Agency of Canada

Tim Evans
McGill University
Inaugural Director and Associate Dean of the School of Population and Global Health (SPGH) in the Faculty of Medicine and Associate Vice-Principal (Global Policy and Innovation)

Rebecca Finlay
VP, Engagement & Public Policy

Rita Finley
Public Health Agency of Canada
Senior Policy Advisor

David Fisman
Dalla Lana School of Public Health ,University of Toronto, University Health Network
Professor, Division of Epidemiology

Matthew German
Director, Product Innovation

Marzyeh Ghassemi
University of Toronto, Vector Institute
Assistant Professor, Computer Science and Medicine; Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Garth Gibson
Vector Institute
President and CEO

Nick Jackson

Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations
Head of Programs and Technology, Vaccine R&D

Kamran Khan
Founder & CEO

Douglas Kingsford
British Columbia Ministry of Health
Chief Medical Information Officer

Yann LeCun
Facebook; New York University; CIFAR
VP and Chief AI Scientist;
Silver Professor of Computer Science, Data Science, Neural Science, and Electrical and Computer Engineering; ACM Turing Award Laureate; Program Co-Director of the Learning in Machines & Brains Program

Gabriel Leung
Hong Kong University
Dean of Medicine

Arnie Levine
Institute for Advanced Study
The Simons Center for Systems Biology
Professor Emeritus;
School of Natural Sciences, Biology

Cam Linke

Joanne Liu
Doctors Without Borders
Past President

Muhammad Mamdani
St. Michael's Hospital
Director, Li Ka Shing Centre for Healthcare Analytics Research and Training (CHART)

Leslie McCarley
Vice-President, Advancement

Sara Mostafavi
University of British Columbia; Vector Institute
Assistant Professor, Statistics & Medical Genetics; Canada CIFAR AI Chair, CIFAR Fellow in Child & Brain Development Program

Mona Nemer
Government of Canada
Chief Science Advisor

Nathaniel Osgood 
University of Saskatchewan
Professor, Department of Computer Science
Associate Faculty, Department of Community Health & Epidemiology
Associate Faculty, Bioengineering Division

Marc-Etienne Ouimette
Element AI
Head, Public Policy and Government Relations

Antoine Petit
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Chairman and CEO

Joelle Pineau
Facebook; McGill University; Mila
Lead, Facebook's Artificial Intelligence Research lab; Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at the School of Computer Science; Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Valerie Pisano
President and CEO

Mike Poole
Biomatics Capital, Inc./ Gates Foundation
Venture Partner, previous Director, Global Health @ Gates

Catherine Riddell
Vice-President, Strategic Communications

Laura Rosella
ICES/University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health
Assistant Professor (Cross-appointment)

Beate Sander
University of Toronto; University Health Network
Scientist and Director of Population Health Economics Research, Toronto Health Economics and Technology Assessment Collaborative

Bernhard Schölkopf
Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems; ETH Zürich
Director; Department of Empirical Inference; Fellow of the CIFAR Learning in Machines & Brains Program

Michael Schull
President & CEO

Sebastian Seung
Princeton University
Evnin Professor in Neuroscience, Professor of Computer Science and Princeton Neurosciences Institute; Advisor, Learning in Machines & Brains Program, CIFAR; International Scientific Advisory Council, CIFAR

Peter Singer
World Health Organization
Special Advisor to Director General

Elissa Strome
Interim VP Research and Executive Director, Pan-Canadian AI Strategy

Shirley Tilghman
Princeton University
President of the University, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs

Ashleigh Tuite
University of Toronto
Assistant Professor, Epidemiology Division

Mike Tyers
Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer; Université de Montréal
Principal Investigator, Systems Biology and Synthetic Biology Research Unit
Professor, Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine

Harold Varmus
Cornell University
Lewis Thomas University Professor & Senior Advisor to the Dean & Provost

Senior Director, Research & Data

Charles Victor
Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships & External Services

Joshua Vogelstein
Johns Hopkins University
Assistant Professor, Institute for Computational Medicine
Center for Imaging Science

Bo Wang
Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and the Techna Institute at the University Health Network; Vector Institute
Lead Artificial Intelligence Scientist; Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Gerry Wright
McMaster University
Director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research; Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences; CIFAR Fellow in Fungal Kingdom: Threats & Opportunities

Pauline Yick
Chief Financial & Administrative Officer

Bill Young

Asaph Young Chun
Statistics Korea
Director-General, Statistics Research Institute

Rich Zemel
University of Toronto; Vector Institute
Professor, Computer Science; Research Director

Meeting Summary

March 23, 2020
Attendees: See the participant list in Appendix A.

Action on COVID-19 This roundtable is one of several immediate actions CIFAR has taken in the global response to COVID-19.

International Roundtable on AI and COVID-19 - Meeting Summary

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