An innovative initiative, spearheaded by Canada’s York University, is leveraging the potency of artificial intelligence (AI) to revolutionize global healthcare. This pioneering scheme aims to bolster the Global South’s preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks, potentially curbing the disastrous fallouts that such crises can precipitate.
The Toronto-based project unites insights from researchers, policy makers, and local community gurus from diverse global focal points to generate AI-enhanced tools. Each tool is meticulously tailored to the specific conditions and health needs of a respective country. The overarching intent is to mitigate the impacts of current and anticipated infectious disease outbreaks in these regions.
A key objective of this visionary scheme is to construct locality-attuned healthcare solutions using homegrown data from various sources. Such data would be put to use for developing and training AI algorithms tailored to fill unique gaps, such as predicting and preparing for disease outbreaks in specific locales. In total, this broad-scale project encompasses 16 southern-based projects.
“We’re striving to make local data actionable, using it to forge common policies that resonate with the needs of local populations,” explains Jude Kong, the program’s executive director. “Our aspiration is to ensure that something akin to COVID-19 never happens again.”
Christened the Global South Artificial Intelligence for Pandemic and Epidemic Preparedness and Response Network (AI4PEP), this comprehensive network was bolstered by $7.25 million from the International Development Research Centre in the previous year—a sizeable chunk of these funds (over $5.8 million) will be allocated over a five-year period to stimulate locally-led projects in southern nations.
Kong postulates the cruciality of enduring partnerships beyond the project’s finite funding duration. “Though the funding will be exhausted in five years, our partnerships and collaborations are intended to be everlasting,” Kong articulates.
The York University team was inundated with a staggering 221 project submissions from 47 countries – a staggering breadth that was condensed to 16 stand-out projects from regions, including Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Effort was taken to ensure the selected projects covered wide-ranging geographical and linguistic distributions.
Indeed, the project’s scope is ambitious: from rigging up polio surveillance in Ethiopia to aiding indigenous populations in the Philippines and formulating user-friendly platforms for future disease outbreak control in Brazil. Such projects are typically classified into four categories: early disease detection, warning systems, response, and control and mitigation of burgeoning epidemics. Each project is designed in harmony with the unique needs of the region it targets.
Kong also underlined the project’s commitment to embracing a decolonizing approach—an approach that prioritizes and emphasizes local wisdom in crafting relevant solutions. Each project team is a melting pot of multi-disciplinary expertise from data scientists, epidemiologists, physicists, mathematicians, software engineers, clinical public health experts, emergency management and community engagement professionals. These teams congregate every two weeks, while stakeholders conduct monthly inter-regional communication sessions.
The project also continues to engage countries who had submitted projects but were not chosen for funding, encouraging them to participate in York University’s lecture series. Reflecting on this, Kong notes, “despite not being chosen, they continue to actively participate in the network, driven by their shared commitment to advancing healthcare systems.”