By David Godkin — June 17, 2020
TORONTO – What do agricultural pesticides and concealed weapons have to do with med-tech advances in fighting COVID-19? Plenty, according to Canada’s science and industry ministry. It has endorsed plans by the nationally funded Digital Technology Supercluster to spend nearly CA$60 million (US$44.4 million) on technologies to, among other things, identify COVID-19-induced fever before someone enters a hospital and predict likely new strains of the virus using machine learning.
“COVID-19 is a cunning virus; it’s going to evolve,” Supercluster CEO Sue Paish told BioWorld. “Using structural biology and quantum computing to anticipate how the virus evolves will help us get ahead of developing testing and therapies for the next evolution of this virus.”
The heat is on
Martin Cronin, CEO of Patriot One Technologies Inc., can tell you everything you need to know about using radar and magnetic resonance imaging to screen people for physical threats, such as guns, knives and bombs. Created four years ago, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company put all of that on a common, artificial intelligence-driven, multisensor platform, Cronin said, “so security managers had the best information possible on what may be coming into a building.”
Fast forward to this spring, and Cronin had a new application for his platform: detecting elevated temperatures in people who may have contracted COVID-19, something beyond the capability of thermal cameras at airports, for example. “We’re also trying to better understand how different body temperature conditions manifest themselves on the thermal image,” said Cronin.
“That means understanding the difference between hyperthermia because it’s a hot day and the fact you’ve been running [vs.] a higher temperature from a fever. We can then see how that manifests itself in heat distribution across the body so we can do a more granular analysis of the heat picture.”
In late May, Patriot announced its eligibility for up to CA$4.5 million in funding from the supercluster to develop and deploy its Patscan multisensor platform for detecting elevated body temperature, facial mask screening and contact tracing. Patriot will kick in another CA$2.5 million to develop and deploy the system.
“We’ll improve accuracy and validate all the models as we go, [something that] will manifest in more and more successful deployments,” said Cronin. “The overall intent is to provide Canadian organizations with a robust solution to the virus while maintaining normal operations.”
Bracing for the next wave
For its part, Vancouver-based Terramera Inc. just announced that it was bringing its machine learning platform for reducing global pesticides to the fight against coronaviruses under a CA$1.8 million supercluster program. “We all know that viruses change,” Karn Manhas, Terramera founder and CEO, told BioWorld. “What we don’t know is whether all these vaccines and antibody treatments that are being worked on are going to be effective on a virus that has adapted.”
The key is to close the gap in time between the emergence of a mutated version of a moribund coronavirus and the manufacturing capability available to kill the new strain. Leading the charge is Steven Slater, Terramera project lead and vice president of strategic initiatives, whose focus will be to identify likely changes in critical proteins on the outside of COVID-19 and then predict the likelihood of that mutant reinfecting the population.
“We’re going to build a compendium of those mutants, which will put us in a position to predesign antibodies, tests, therapies and vaccines to combat them,” Slater told BioWorld. “When they do emerge, we’ll have things on the shelf that we can put into manufacturing without having that initial lag.” The driver will be Terramera’s Actigate machine learning models.
Everyone helps, everyone pays
Other companies are pitching in to help Patriot One and Terramera advance and validate their coronavirus platforms. Microsoft Inc. and Burnaby, British Columbia-based D-Wave Systems Inc. will provide Terramera with added computational capacity. But it also has a direct link to health care settings through Toronto-based Promis Neuroscience Inc. to take the data gleaned from its predictive platform for mutating viruses to develop therapeutic antibodies.
For its part, Patriot One will receive servers and background architecture from Toronto’s Cisco Innovation Centre to support deployment of its multisensor platform at Canadian-based hospitals and other institutions.
All participating private and health care sectors are expected to invest in the supercluster program “in dollars or sometimes in kind” said Paish. “Our members have co-invested approximately CA$29 million, so it’s not quite 50-50, but it’s close. We’re investing right alongside them.”