A graphic map tracking the COVID-19 outbreak, starting in Wuhan, China and spreading across the globe
A graphic map tracking the COVID-19 outbreak, starting in Wuhan, China and spreading across the globe

AI in focus: BlueDot and the response to COVID-19

Dr. Kamran Khan, Founder and CEO of BlueDot
Dr. Kamran Khan, Founder and CEO of BlueDot

When Toronto’s Dr. Kamran Khan opened a file on December 31, 2019, that showed an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, he let out an audible gasp.

The artificial intelligence and expert analysis used to monitor viruses internationally—systems that he’d spent his career working on—had worked perfectly.

Khan’s tools allowed his company, BlueDot, and its clients, to be aware of COVID-19 days before the World Health Organization made an announcement.

“There was a sense of like, ‘oh my gosh, the system we built is working. It’s doing exactly what we anticipated it would do, and it’s doing it accurately,’” said Khan, who is also a practicing infectious disease physician at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and a professor at The University of Toronto. “Then, as the virus started to make landfall and started spreading locally, we were able to take our solutions and our tools and start to support the local public health response.”

Among BlueDot’s clients at the time was Taiwan’s public health agency, which managed to lock down quickly and succinctly, helping it become one of the best in the world at fighting off the novel coronavirus. BlueDot’s system of tracking COVID-19’s movement also helped influence California to issue America’s first stay-at-home order, effectively saving countless lives. This response from America’s largest state gave the Toronto-based startup international media attention, including appearances on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” a profile piece in Wired magazine, and an invitation for Khan to host his own TEDx Talk.

“What I’m most proud of is the fact that we have kept our eye on the ball and [have] not lost sight of the challenge that’s in front of us,” Khan said. “We’ve used every day […] in preparation for this moment.”

Ontario’s culture of innovation

Indeed, the technology and intelligence used to build BlueDot came to Khan’s mind in 1999 when he was studying at Columbia University in New York. He saw how West Nile Virus showed up in North America. A few years later, he came back to Toronto to start his career at St. Michael’s Hospital, shortly after the first strain of the SARS coronavirus outbreak hit, killing 774 people in 29 countries, and Khan knew life would never be the same.

“Two infectious disease emergencies in four years, and that basically for me consolidated this idea that the world I was going to practice medicine in was going to look very different than it was the generation before,” he said.

Khan realized that if the world were to be hit by the next pandemic, which would inevitably come sooner rather than later, public health authorities couldn’t just work smarter; they’d have to act faster, which meant scaling up. To do that, he’d have to shift from academic researcher to entrepreneur, so he connected with the world-renowned MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, a not-for-profit incubator that channels public and private funds to launch, grow and scale medical research and other innovative technologies.

“I think [the MaRS] ecosystem and a few key people really helped me take that leap of faith,” Khan said.

Khan wanted to use artificial intelligence to seek out signs of viruses not just in medical journals but also in news media across the world in dozens of languages (it now monitors over 65 languages). He also hoped to employ experts of all stripes to fact-check the data.

But to tackle those complex problems, Khan knew he’d need a diverse group of experts in all fields—and the Greater Toronto Area with its wealth of top universities proved to be the ideal place to find that talent.

“Here in Toronto, we’ve got diversity on multiple different tracks—diversity of backgrounds, diversity of skillsets, perspectives,” he said. “And so, it is that eclectic mix of physicians, epidemiologists, data scientists and engineers…under a virtual roof… that really allow us to do things in ways that you can’t easily do when you’re operating in silos.”

Khan added that even since launching BlueDot in 2013, Toronto has become an even better place to do business. “We’re beginning to see a bit more of a culture that is oriented around innovation and risk-taking, candidly, in ways that maybe didn’t exist ten years ago.”

Collaborating for a safer world

Since being among the first to recognize the threat of COVID-19, BlueDot has more than doubled in size, ballooning from 35 employees to over 80 and moving from St. Michael’s Hospital to its own offices in Toronto. It has retooled its software to monitor COVID-19’s spread, having predicted flare-ups in places like Brazil and India months before they became the two eyes of the storm. And for countries that have been leading the way on vaccination, BlueDot is providing data-based recommendations for when societies can return to some semblance of normal.

The company has also expanded its client base away from solely public health agencies, working with different government sectors, including national defence, as well as with large global enterprises like Air Canada and Reckitt Benckiser (the maker of Lysol wipes), planning to minimize disruptions to their business.

“In the private sector, there’s still a lot of discovery around how do you integrate insights into workflows and actions [to] make smarter decisions,” Khan said. “Getting the insights is one thing, but turning the insight into action is another […], and so we’ve had the real joy of having the opportunity to work with our customers and do some of that learning together.”

Prepared for the next pandemic

As this pandemic is beginning to simmer in many places (Khan says COVID-19 will be around “forever,” but it’ll become much less severe), this is no time to let down our guard. He expects another pandemic could come within the next decade, or sooner, as the ingredients that led to this virus spreading—international travel, human diets, deforestation, climate change, among other factors—all continue.

Desktop view of BlueDot’s Insights dashboard, pinpointing active disease outbreaks on a world map
Desktop view of BlueDot’s Insights dashboard, pinpointing active disease outbreaks on a world map

Khan likes to say what BlueDot has built is a metaphorical smoke detector, but to survive the fire, governments, companies and everyday citizens need to work together to plan an escape route before the house is engulfed in flames.

“We have just been through a pretty horrific crisis, and it’s not over yet. […] Governments, businesses and healthcare systems around the world—we’re going to have to move smarter and faster and deeper than we’ve ever done before,” he said. “Do we want to be in the business of firefighting, or do we want to be in the business of fire prevention? I think we need to be doing both.”

“I feel like we’re just getting started here,” he added.

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