How the COVID-19 vaccine is similar to artificial intelligence in healthcare

“In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.”

J. Paul Getty, American business tycoon

The COVID-19 viral blitzkrieg rages on with now several mutated strains that are possibly more transmissible as well as more lethal. Despite the incredible miracle of the several vaccines that have become available (arguably years ahead of schedule), the vaccination process has been a daunting challenge in most countries.

To date, only around 50 million doses have been given since the inception of vaccination programs to less than 1% of the world’s population. At this glacial pace, the world will not reach herd immunity until several years from now. The utterly unthinkable is that it is entirely possible that this menacing RNA virus can mutate multiple times during this period and possibly into a form that is at least partly resistant to the current vaccines.

The nations around the world that have performed the best with the vaccination include Israel (with vaccines reaching the blistering pace of 15% of its 9 million population in the first two weeks) and United Arab Emirates (with a similarly fast pace of vaccination of about 20% of the population in the first month). Countries like Canada and the United States have vaccination rates that were significantly lower (only around 2% of its population) with regional jurisdictions, rather than a centralized national strategy, managing the logistics for the vaccination.

The common elements for a successful vaccination program appear to be 1) early access to both vaccines and supplies via governmental approval; 2) wide support from the population; and 3) a centralized universal healthcare system with an organized database. The major confounding and ethical issue is that the rich countries are hoarding the vaccines at the expense of relatively high-risk people in poor countries.

In several ways, artificial intelligence and its portfolio can be compared to the vaccine and the deployment of AI be compared to the vaccination process. First, both the vaccine and artificial intelligence became available well ahead of expected schedule. In addition, both the vaccine and AI tools can work well in the initial phase but real world experience still need to be gathered prior to any final conclusions about effectiveness. Of note, AI needs more than a single dose for higher effectiveness just like the vaccine. Lastly, for both vaccines and artificial intelligence, it is not just about the numbers of people converted but overall impact in improving outcome. Interestingly, artificial intelligence is leveraged in the form of deep learning of SARS-COV-2 to discover vaccines in silico.

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