Coronavirus: From startups to supercomputers, how tech is trying to help tackle COVID-19

Governments around the world have called on the help of the technology industry. Here are a few of the projects in the works.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

As the world confronts the health crisis of a generation in the form of the fast-spreading COVID-19 coronavirus, technology companies still remain firmly in the spotlight – but this time, not because of privacy scandals, digital tax wars, or dodgy positions on climate change

This time governments around the world are turning to tech and hoping to find solutions to tackle the pandemic. And it looks like the industry might be the right one to ask. 

A couple of weeks ago, in London, the prime minister's chief adviser Dominic Cummings summoned representatives from 30 technology companies to a meeting in Downing Street, and together with NHS CEO Simon Stevens he asked them what they had to offer to help tackle the crisis. The summit included big players, such as executives from Google's DeepMind; but the call for action, which has come to be known as "digital Dunkirk", has made waves across the whole industry.

Russ Shaw, the founder of the independent network Tech London Advocates, told ZDNet that the government's pledge has been heard by entrepreneurs small and big. "Digital Dunkirk is inspiring for digital and tech," he said. "The government is turning to our sector in a big, bold way to say: 'Help us'. It's a very powerful move, and it shows how much our government is embracing the industry."

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

The COVID-19 virus is fast expanding across the globe, and the challenges faced by government in the UK as in the rest of the world, cannot be understated. From alleviating pressure on medical services' helplines and emergency rooms, to providing new equipment, through fighting online disinformation: the list of issues to tackle seems endless.

So is the scope to come up with solutions – and big tech, for one, has been quick to deploy support in various formats. Last week, Microsoft announced that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using the company's Azure-run healthcare chatbot service to power a COVID-19 assessment bot that can quickly assess symptoms and suggest next steps, whether that means seeing a doctor or staying at home.

Amazon's AWS has committed $20 million to fund a diagnostic development unit, in an effort to develop a faster and more affordable test for the virus. Washington State's Department of Health is using digital workflow company ServiceNow's platform to manage its emergency response operations via an app, which has now been made available to all government entities at no charge. IBM has partnered with the White House to provide supercomputing power to researchers trying to understand and stop the spread of COVID-19. 

But a billion-dollar revenue is not a requirement to pitch in. Quite the opposite, according to Zoe Chambers, early-stage investor specializing in deep tech at VC firm Octopus Ventures. "The government isn't just looking at big corporations," she told ZDNet, "they also need the help of those who are at the cutting edge of their field, who are creative, and who can react quickly."

Case in point: this week, the digital branch of the UK's health services, NHSX, launched a technology challenge dubbed Techforce 19, calling on "all innovators" to come up with ideas to support the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during COVID-19. Software developers, programmers and entrepreneurs with a good idea have until 1 April to apply for up to £25,000 ($30,867) to test their ideas. The organization will fast-track the selection process and announce winners just two days later, on 3 April.

In partnership with app-building platform Dataswift, NHSX is also launching a "Hack from Home" hackathon, encouraging "technologists, creatives, activists and experts" to launch new ideas over the course of a weekend. The event, which will be held remotely, is after scientific solutions to tackle the disease, as well as ways to boost community health and better organize mass coordination to mobilize resources.

The UK is by no means the only country to precipitate the unlocking of funds to attract innovative technology solutions. The French Ministry of Armed Forces has deployed €10 million ($11 million) in a call for projects to protect and test the population, support patient care or monitor the evolution of the pandemic. 

India launched its own COVID-19 solution challenge two weeks ago, encouraging startups who have developed services that can be leveraged to fight the virus to come forward with ideas. Poland's government, for its part, has already organized an international hackathon with over 1,500 participants, to identify solutions to the crisis.

For Russ Shaw, there is no doubt that the pandemic will "galvanize" healthtech businesses. "Companies in the medical emergency field are going to be in high demand, because they are going to be an important part of the solution," he said. "The digitization of healthcare is certainly only going to accelerate, and play an even more dynamic role in everybody's lives."

Start-ups and scale-ups, in fact, have lost no time in responding to governments' call for help. Health service provider Babylon Health, for instance, which provides remote consultations with healthcare professionals, has launched a new service within its app to update patients with information about the virus, as well as to check symptoms and, if necessary, fast-track them to a GP or hospital.

Increasingly, it would seem, entrepreneurs are taking it upon themselves to equip countries with tools to tackle the virus. Shaw's organization Tech London Advocates, after surveying its 10,000-strong London-based community, found that three-quarters of respondents agreed that tech companies have a central role to play in the fight against COVID-19, suggesting, according to the report, that they are "aware of their broader duty to support society through the pandemic".

Melissa Morris is the co-founder of Lantum, a workforce-management platform launched in 2012 in the UK to help the NHS reduce costs associated with staffing. Lantum, with over 20,000 medical staff profiles, provides a national overview of where clinical capacity is, so that GP practices can easily find a locum doctor when they have a shift gap.

"As you can imagine, when the pandemic started breaking out, things got extremely busy," Morris told ZDNet, "so we worked hard to mobilize the resources already on the Lantum platform, to direct them to patients who needed it the most. Plus, we had to reconfigure the services, so that GPs could start putting in different shifts, like tele-consultations, for example."

With GPs cancelling their physical appointments and changing them to "COVID shifts", the platform has been able to efficiently reallocate physicians, and so far has not seen a drop in filling shifts due to shortage of staff. 

Morris is now working with 111, which she said has seen an increase of about 1,000% in calls, to fill call-handling shifts with qualified clinicians as quickly as possible. The company's team is also bracing itself for the coming influx of retired doctors – a cohort just about to come into the market, which will need to be allocated shifts as well. 

The company's entire focus has shifted to tackling the pandemic, explained Morris, and the whole team is mobilized behind the effort; any other initiative has been sidelined for now. And Lantum's CEO is adamant that this approach is shared by most workers in the medtech field. "Medtech is trying to get its head down and work as fast as it can to help with the crisis," she said. "Everyone is trying hard to do what's right and work as fast as they can to support the NHS."

"Those who have the capabilities and can help at scale are simply going to the NHS and asking: 'how can we help?'," she added.

Medtech, evidently, is particularly well-equipped to provide help in a short amount of time, but it is not the only sector that has reacted to the crisis. With masks, gowns, respirators, and other key pieces of equipment lacking in most hospitals around the world, 3D-printing companies have also stepped up to show that they might be able to help too. New-York based business Budmen, for instance, has been working on designing and producing face shields to protect medical staff, and has set the objective of printing 1,000 pieces a day.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

In the UK, researchers from King's College University in London have partnered with nutrition advice start-up Zoe to create an app that can track users for symptoms of the virus, with the aim to help researchers identify the speed of COVID-19, as well as higher-risk areas and individuals most at risk. The app, dubbed COVID Symptom Tracker, was launched in just three days and is already one of the most popular downloads in the country.

"If you have a tech that can be repurposed quite quickly, then it completely makes sense to put your hand up," said Octopus Ventures' Chambers. "Say if you have an at-home temperature tracking app, initially designed for fertility – then it can easily be repurposed for self-isolating people, because the tech is there."

In fact, according to Chambers, the UK government's Joint Forces Innovation Unit has already reached out to Octopus Ventures, to ask if any companies in the VC fund's portfolio had already turned their attention to the pandemic. 

The unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 virus has brought upon governments and societies around the world has already prompted many countries to place much of their hope in the hands of the technology industry. "A lot of businesses in Silicon Valley have been previously criticized for their behavior, and now we are asking for their help," said Shaw. "They are stepping up, which is wonderful, and they will have to demonstrate that they are doing so responsibly." 

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