SOCIETY | May 7, 2020

Imagine a nano-war between bits and viruses

The Eng-DE4Bios bio-surveillance system in the fight against SARS-CoV-2

The social distancing that has been affecting us for many weeks is in fact a set of non-pharmacological actions for controlling infections, aimed at slowing down or stopping the spread of a contagious disease.

It is certainly a great ally in fighting a global pandemic like the current COVID-19 one, but it must be accompanied by solid and rapid technological solutions: from smart working systems to applications to contain infections, from mobile applications to the race for a vaccine.

This global war is therefore fought on various battlefields; one of the many open fronts is undoubtedly the one played by information technology and software. How?

Over 45 years ago, Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium explained that… “it is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines, that exist only as functions of software and evolve so that they can work out ever more complex programs. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits”.

The lightness of weightless bits to fight a virus, the terrible SARS-CoV-2, the size of a few nanometers, which has literally immobilized the world: a nano-war.

Let’s try to imagine how software could provide a fundamental contribution.

Imagine having microbiology laboratories, public and private, which have been churning out tens of thousands of tests arriving from laboratories, hospitals, emergency rooms, the street, temporary screening stations, day and night without a pause. These are difficult operating conditions which often bring rogue data; Giga bytes which must be harmonized and integrated in order to be used quickly to cope with the emergency.

Imagine receiving every hour, practically in real time, a mountain of data, which must be linked and combined to create a knowledge base aimed at protecting infected people who are suffering, fighting, healing.

Imagine using this knowledge to understand where these infected people are: at home, in a hospital or in intensive care, the latter one of the most precious and critical resources in the COVID-19 crisis.

Imagine organizing information which is managed by different Administrations so that it is possible to visualize, on a map, where the people affected by COVID-19 are, with a reference to the place where they live, their doctor, their diseases. And to see a “red inverted-drop-shaped icon” identifying an infected person at home in quarantine, a green one for a healed one.

Imagine providing General Practitioners with this map displaying only their patients, so that they can safely plan their daily activities in the area.

Imagine providing the Mayors and the competent Authorities planning the healthcare services and supervision activities with updated information relating to their specific territories, allowing them quick and easy searches and viewings: not for control of course, but for protection.

Imagine that, as days and weeks go by, the “red drop icon” becomes a group of two, three, four people. That cluster is a family unit or an apartment building: the virus attacks inside the home walls.

Imagine that, starting from an infected patient, specific algorithms could allow you to define the composition of his/her family, find his/her neighbors potentially exposed to the virus. And, perhaps, define the priorities in order that those who have not yet done so should undergo preventive tests on the basis of their diseases.

Imagine that these groupings on the map are growing, a lot and fast. They could be nursing homes for the elderly, shelters, hospitals, communities. Therefore, it is necessary to know who the guests are and who the operators are as quickly as possible. The virus attacks the weakest.

Imagine knowing the punctual and updated situation of all the Healthcare Workers employed in the field on the front line. They represent our most valuable, and limited, weapon against the virus: you can buy an intensive care bed, but not a nurse or a doctor who can no longer work.

Imagine that they too are becoming ill; for the Emergency Management Authority, having the situation in real time is crucial for making critical and quick decisions: removing the infected and recalling to service anyone who can be “reintegrated”, to have a precise and detailed picture divided by Health Administration and by professional profile. The virus is fast.

Imagine analyzing this data, applying algorithms, using all this knowledge produced to draw the curves of the pandemic evolution and of the virus’ spread in real time. This is the starting point for iteratively defining the parameters which feed the epidemiological forecasting models.

Imagine helping the Authorities in charge of making decisions on the basis of data-driven and evidence-based theoretical models calibrated in real time.

Imagine the excitement of the work team that has been scrutinizing the numbers for weeks hoping for any sign of a drop in the curve.

Imagine the return to a new normal life where knowledge of infected and healed people is crucial. The apps used in our country may well be different ones, but the really important element will be to have an interoperable platform, hopefully at European level and based on open data models and open APIs, able to manage information which is important for the post-emergency phase. Regardless of the individual app.

Imagine that the people you are working with side by side (in a virtual mode) tell you that “… the bio-surveillance system developed by Engineering allows us to monitor in real time the spread of the pandemic and provides us with data to predict its effects in advance. All this has allowed us to implement preventive actions to guide the emergency system, avoiding further infections, limiting the number of people who die and above all saving human lives”.

Finally, imagine that all this is real.

These are the words of Lorenzo Gubian, Health Department CIO of the Veneto Region.

All that we have described has been done by the women and men of Engineering, from mid-February, day and night, alongside the Regione Veneto and Azienda Zero on the front line against the virus.

This is the Eng-DE4Bios bio-surveillance system, created in a few days from our TM Digital Enabler ecosystem platform.

The small weightless bits may not have won the nano-war yet, but at least they are giving SARS-CoV-2 a hard time.

Lanfranco Marasso