How artificial intelligence and big data are fighting COVID-19 in Africa

Featured illustration of the novel coronavirus
An illustration showing the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

A collaboration led by York University researchers in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Health is using artificial intelligence (AI) to define public health policies and interventions to contain and manage the spread of COVID-19 in Africa.

With a scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines in many African countries and the rise of new variants of concern, the Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence and Data Innovation Consortium (ACADIC) is playing a pivotal role in providing locally nuanced analysis of data to inform public health decision making, as well as vaccination rollout strategies.

A photo with a black backgroud that features two vials of COVID-19 vaccine and a syringe
The Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence and Data Innovation Consortium is playing a pivotal role in providing locally nuanced analysis of data to inform public health decision making, as well as vaccination rollout strategies

The interdisciplinary consortium is directed by York University Professor Jude Kong from the Faculty of Science. Also serving on the executive committee from York University are: Distinguished Research Professor Jianhong Wu, director of the Laboratory for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in the Faculty of Science and ACADIC co-president; Professor James Orbinski, director of the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research and ACADIC executive committee member; and LA&PS Associate Professor Ali Asgary, associate director of the Advanced Disaster, Emergency and Rapid Response Simulation and ACADIC executive committee member. ACADIC brings together an interdisciplinary team of data scientists, epidemiologists, physicists, mathematicians and software engineers, as well as AI, disaster and emergency management, clinical public health, citizen science and community engagement experts. It is leveraging big data and AI-based techniques in nine African countries, with experts from 11 different countries – Botswana, Cameroon, Canada, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

These techniques help identify and analyze emergent COVID-19 hotspots and outbreaks, and develop strategic, highly targeted and staged delivery plans for vaccines to priority areas. The team is also using ongoing monitoring to enhance COVID-19 testing to ensure public health interventions are equitable and effective.

Half of the world’s doses of vaccines have been secured by a handful of economically developed countries, but most African nations have received very few and continue to prepare and test their vaccination campaigns for when sufficient vaccine doses are made available.

A defining challenge is to develop local strategies that will reduce the number of COVID-19 cases, even as variants of concern circulate amidst a dearth of vaccines.

Some areas of focus for York researchers involved in ACADIC include:

  • making big data and AI actionable for real-time delivery of reliable and comprehensive information to predict the spread and impact of an epidermic, and to guide governmental policies and best practice in an epidemic;
  • the role of big data and AI in understanding and intervening in pandemics;
  • big data, AI and COVID-19 in Africa;
  • the determinants of the low COVID-19 transmission and mortality rates in Africa;
  • vaccine acceptance/hesitancy across Africa;
  • incorporating AI and mathematical modelling for smart vaccination rollout in vaccine-limited regions;
  • clinical public health practices in epidemics and pandemics;
  • intervention systems in disasters and health emergencies;
  • disease dynamics and modelling;
  • transferring lessons learned from mass vaccination simulation to Africa;
  • disease modelling and simulation in refugee camps in Africa; and
  • use of AI to model economic impacts of COVID-19 in Africa.