Coronavirus: AI steps up in battle against Covid-19

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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.