Technology has been playing a pivotal role in tackling the coronavirus pandemic — from conducting tests and detecting infections to developing vaccines and trialling them, delivering results faster than ever before. Health tech companies in the country too have been at the forefront of this fight.
On July 16, Abu Dhabi-based G42 Healthcare flagged off the world’s first Phase III clinical trials of an inactivated Covid-19 vaccine, developed by Chinese pharma giant Sinopharm, in the UAE, in partnership with the Department of Health — Abu Dhabi, UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention and Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha). A mere two months later, extensive trials had been successfully carried out in 31,000 volunteers of 125 nationalities, of which around 1,000 had a history of chronic illness. The vaccine candidate was found to be safe and effective at generating Covid-19 antibodies, with only mild side effects.
In fact, confidence in the vaccine was so high that the country authorised its emergency use in frontline workers. The UAE Minister of Health and Prevention, Abdul Rahman Bin Mohammed Al Owais, led from the front and took the country’s first vaccine dose. And in early November, none other than Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, joined the list of people who’ve received the vaccine including cabinet ministers.
But how did G42 Healthcare reach this important milestone so quickly? Well, it was partly because G42 Healthcare is a subsidiary of Group 42, which specialises in technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning and cloud computing, and is home to the Artemis, the world’s 26th most powerful supercomputer. Ashish Koshy, CEO of G42 Healthcare, explains that apart from the extensive technical and medical expertise available at his firm, Phase III vaccine trials were supported by state-of-the-art solutions from Group 42. “We have been utilising our key areas of technological expertise and clinical sites initiation, clinical research management and our technological resources to accelerate the results of these trials.”
We have been utilising our key areas of technological expertise and clinical sites initiation, clinical research management and our technological resources to accelerate the results of these trials.
Mounting death toll, the immense pressure Covid-19 puts on healthcare systems and the massive disruption to international markets, the supply chain, and global workforce have impressed upon the world the need for speed in vaccine development. “This urgency has truly altered how companies and countries are approaching the vaccine development process,” Koshy says, pointing out that the progress on a vaccine for Covid-19 has been rapid compared to other viruses, with human trials starting 67 days after the outbreak began. In comparison, the Ebola virus from 2014 took 164 days to reach human trials, while the SARS virus from 2003 took 323 days.
These shortened timelines are possible because of the progress healthcare technologies have made over the years. It has restructured the drug discovery and drug repurposing processes, while simultaneously cutting down on time to market and R&D costs. Artificial intelligence, in particular, is playing an increasingly critical role in healthcare decision-making and in clinical trials, by helping researchers determine the success of protocols, or mine available electronic health records and other databases to match patients to trials. “Artificial intelligence is ensuring effective data analysis and is being used to assess the performance of vaccine trial sites or volunteer responsiveness through identified indicators,” explains Koshy.
Cutting-edge technology also helped G42 Healthcare establish a massive throughput Covid-19 testing laboratory, in just 14 days. The Biogenix lab in Masdar City can process more than 30,000 samples daily, and it was used to analyse swabs for RT-PCR tests to exclude Covid-19 positivity among volunteers interested in joining G42’s 4Humanity trial, as well as to analyse volunteers’ blood samples for quantitative analysis of IgG and IgM antibodies on Day 0 and subsequent increase of antibody level after 14 and 28 days to determine the efficacy of the vaccine. Furthermore, in partnership with Oxford Nanopore Technologies, G42 Healthcare developed LamPORE, a rapid scale-up Covid-19 testing solution that delivers high throughput testing, while reducing the turnaround time compared to the standard PCR testing.
Enabling mass screening
Another home-grown success in the field of rapid testing has been QuantLase Imaging Lab, the medical research arm of Abu Dhabi’s International Holding Company. Its Diffractive Phase Interferometry (DPI) system uses a laser-based technique to find markers caused by Covid-19. “Our system is based on physics, not chemistry,” explains Dr Pramod Kumar, Principal Scientist of Quantum Photonics and Research Team Leader at QuantLase, who is also the inventor of the DPI laser technology. “It treats blood sample as a physical entity, and by shining laser light at it, you can trace morphological changes in blood.”
Kumar reveals that the Covid-testing algorithms have been developed in-house, and the technology does not need a lab to run. It can be deployed outside, in any weather condition, and can deliver results in under five seconds with 95 per cent accuracy. QuantLase has currently deployed 175 machines at 29 locations across the UAE and has tested more than 2.2 million people so far. Kumar asserts that the constraining factor is how fast they can build the testing system — the lab is ramping up production and even looking at exporting the technology to other countries, including the USA and the UK. “Ultimately, the lessons learnt with Covid will help us develop our machine into a general-purpose medical device that can work with any virus,” adds Kumar.
Ultimately, the lessons learnt with Covid will help us develop our machine into a general-purpose medical device that can work with any virus.
G42 Healthcare too has been exploring all options and actively collaborating with national and international companies to come up with solutions across the spectrum for Covid-19.
On the rapid testing front, G42 Healthcare joined hands with NanoScent, an Israeli company that specialises in scent-reading technologies. The end result is Scent Check, a non-invasive, portable solution capable of detecting suspected cases of Covid-19 from a sample of exhaled nasal air, in just 30 to 60 seconds.
In the future, Koshy anticipates cutting-edge technologies to be at the forefront of dealing with unprecedented healthcare challenges.
“Powered by bespoke AI and cloud solutions, we envision future-proofing the health of nations with speed, scale and synchronisation,” he says.