Coronavirus: AI steps up in battle against Covid-19

COVID19 on gradient red to blue background

Jane Wakefield, Technology Reporter

Normally, just getting them all to work together would take “a year of paperwork”, said Scipher’s chief executive Alif Saleh.

But a series of Zoom calls with a “group of people with a unprecedented determination to get things done, not to mention a lot of time of their hands”, speeded things up.

“The last three weeks would normally take half a year. Everyone dropped everything,” he said.

Already, their research has yielded surprising results, including:

  • the suggestion the virus may invade brain tissues, which may explain why some people lose their sense of taste or smell)
  • the prediction it may also attack the reproductive system of both men and women

Scipher Medicine combines AI with something it calls network medicine – a method that views a disease via the complex interactions among molecular components.

“A disease phenotype is rarely due to malfunction of one gene or protein on its own – nature is not that simple – but the result of a cascading effect in a network of interactions between several proteins,” Mr Saleh said.

Using network medicine, AI and a fusion of the two has led the consortium to identify 81 potential drugs that could help.

“AI can do a little better, not only looking at higher order correlations but little bits of independent information that traditional network medicine might miss,” said Prof Albert-Laszlo Barabasi.

But AI alone would not have worked, they needed all three approaches.

“Different tools look at different perspectives but together are very powerful” he added.