Coronavirus Research Highlights AI, Data Applications in Biotech

If you work at a biotech company, your friends are suddenly very interested in what you do
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Liu Zhongjun/China News Service via Getty Images

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In April 2003, about five months after SARS began spreading, an international team of scientists fully sequenced the virus's genome. This January, just two weeks after a mystery virus was reported to the WHO, researchers had sequenced the novel coronavirus. Days later, they developed the first diagnostic tests.

Technology advances have sped up the timeline with which scientists can treat an outbreak. As they race toward a coronavirus treatment, they're using mail-order DNA, synthetic viruses, and the kind of emerging tech you're used to reading about here.

Who's breaking out the centrifuges

The pharma bigwigs: J&J, Roche, Novartis, Merck, Sanofi. A couple have headstarts on coronavirus, including Gilead, which just started antiviral clinical trials; Pfizer, which is in talks with German drugmaker BioNTech for an mRNA-based vaccine; and Moderna, which starts clinical trials this month for a different vaccine using synthetic mRNA therapies.

Small biotechs are also joining (and enjoying stock bumps north of 40%):

  • AbCellera is identifying antibodies in recovered patients.
  • Sirnaomics is using gene silencing techniques.
  • Novacyt applied for emergency FDA approval for diagnostic tests.

AI is becoming a powerful tool. Insilico Medicine, a Hong Kong-based biotech company, has fired up an "assembly line of AI methods," CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told the WSJ. In just four days, Insilico's AI models developed 100,000 unique molecules that could potentially treat coronavirus. Insilico is now producing seven solutions, hoping to begin tests next month.

  • Vir Biotechnology and Atomwise are other companies deploying machine learning to analyze chemical data sets and drugs' potential performance.

Any room for Big Tech?

AI talent is concentrated in the tech industry (and especially in Big Tech firms). As AI finds more applications in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, expect more industry crossover.

Baidu is giving researchers AI models, data analysis tools, and computing resources to map and manage the coronavirus epidemic. The Chinese search giant's in-house team has also developed an AI tool that speeds up coronavirus analysis.

Big picture: Even if scientists found a vaccine today, it would take months to go through the necessary human trials and produce at scale. But data analysis tools and AI can expedite R&D timelines and introduce new treatment options.

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