Australian Government awards almost $800,000 to AI development for early pandemic detection

News | Published on 14 May 2021

The Kirby Institute’s Professor Raina MacIntryre, Ms Aye Moa and UNSW colleagues have been awarded $799,000 as part of the latest funding round of the Australian Government’s highly competitive Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) scheme, for an artificial intelligence (AI) epidemic early warning system which could be a game changer in health security. 

Researchers say if the COVID-19 pandemic had been detected early in its genesis before it spread beyond Wuhan, it could have been stamped out entirely and the pandemic prevented. Currently, the public health system relies on doctors or laboratories to report epidemics, which is a passive and untimely system. But there is a vast array of un-curated, open-source data, such as social media and news reports, which capture the concerns and discussions of the community. Algorithms and AI technology can be used to make sense of, or ‘mine’ this data, to reveal potential early signals of epidemics, prior to official detection by health authorities. To date however, use of this technology for early detection has not been a focus of pandemic planning.

“In our highly globalised and mobile modern world, we have seen an increase in epidemics over the past two decades, from swine flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika virus, and now SARS-CoV-2, and the risk of new epidemics emerging will continue,” says Prof. MacIntyre. “We need to utilise all the tools available to us, to detect potential risks very early and control outbreaks before they escalate.”

Using AI, Prof. MacIntyre and her team will develop a fully automated, intelligent system for rapid epidemic detection using this open-source data. The system will build on the existing Epiwatch prototype; a functioning, semi-automated event-based surveillance system that was developed between 2016 and 2020 by Prof MacIntyre at UNSW. It was created to collect outbreak alerts from a variety of global news sources, which are then filtered and curated into a publicly available dataset.

“There is an enormous untapped resource with the information that is published online day-to-day, which can give us immediate insights into what people are seeing and experiencing in their lives,” says Prof. MacIntyre. “This information could raise the red flag much earlier and help us identify and prevent a potential pandemic, which as we have seen has devastating health and economic consequences. I welcome the government’s investment in this innovative area of research.”

UNSW’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise Professor Nicholas Fisk, welcomed the funding, which was one of several MRFF grants awarded to UNSW research. “Professor MacIntyre’s Stage 1 Frontiers grant is absolutely timely given this week’s World Health Organization (WHO) report on pandemic preparedness,” he said.

The collabroative project team includes Associate Professor David Heslop (School of Population Health, UNSW), Associate Professor Samsung Lim, Associate Professor Lina Yao and Dr Helen Paik (UNSW Engineering), and Dr Cecile Paris and the team from CSIRO’s Data 61.