It’s all anyone’s been talking about for what seems like forever. No one knows for how long it will continue to spread, and how many it will kill. I am of course talking about Coronavirus, also known as COVID 19.

Not caused by Corona beer, but instead a strain of the coronavirus family, SARS-CoV2 is encased in a spiky shell of proteins that use cells in the respiratory system to replicate. Causing respiratory illness, the symptoms include a fever, cough and shortness of breath and it is spread through respiratory droplets within a 6 foot perimeter of the infected person. It is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is transferred from animals to humans, and just like SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, it is thought to have originated in bats specifically in the Wuhan city in China.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) designated SARS-CoV2 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on the 30th of January 2020 and this is not the first time we have seen a zoonotic disease outbreak globally in recent years. Ebola, the 1918 influenza, the 2009 swine flu have all caused widespread devastation. So what is it about this Coronavirus that is causing the World to go into panic mode? It is the huge number of unknowns. This strain of the virus has come completely out of nowhere and it’s mode of transmission and full set of symptoms are so far not completely understood by professionals. The only thing it can be somewhat compared to is influenza, which is also from the Coronavirus family, and causes the yearly influenza outbreak we all know and love. Healthcare professionals are working fast to prepare a vaccine, but it is difficult as this coronavirus has never been seen before, unlike influenza which has been studied for decades. Also alarming is that currently the percentage death rate is higher than that of the flu which is around 0.1% according to WHO, however it is not a guarantee that all cases are being reported so this figure may not be accurate. Another worry is that some infected individuals may be asymptomatic, thus transmitting the virus unknowingly, potentially to vulnerable citizens.

Around the world professionals are working on strategies to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus and keep it contained where it has broken out.  Pathogens, including viruses, are unpredictable and continue to adapt and emerge at seemingly random instances and scientists expect there to be more global catastrophic biological events in our near future. During this time, it is important to look at what strategies have worked, what haven’t and what lessons can be learnt to put strategies into place in cities to prevent a disaster like this from happening again. More specifically, how smart cities could prevent a similar outbreak from happening again and seek out technologies that could be harnessed to help mitigate global catastrophic biological risks, by taking aim at infectious diseases outbreaks.

One technology sector that could be used in smart cities to prevent disease outbreak is artificial intelligence (AI). AI algorithms will allegedly be able to predict disease outbreaks before they happen. By utilising infrared imaging for rapid and multiple body temperature monitoring, feverish people can be recognised and by cross referencing their healthcare history, travel records and weather patterns, AI can supposedly predict outbreaks before they happen. Crowds, in train stations for example, can quickly be screened with an accuracy rate of over 90% (ref), preventing virus transmission. This would require a more open approach to big data, and potentially privacy being lost as technology companies would require certain pieces of information. But if this prevents an outbreak like the one we are currently experiencing, the general consensus will be that the usage of this private information will be overridingly positive. Leading the way with sensors are China, where over 500 “smart cities”, apparently equipped with sensors, cameras, and other gadgets that can crunch data on everything from traffic and pollution, to public health and security.

AI also has a role in predicting possible outbreaks. BlueDot, a Canadian AI start-up spotted Coronavirus before anyone else knew anything of it. It picked up on a cluster of “unusual pneumonia” in Wuhan. At the time it was not expected that it would amount to anything of this magnitude, however now it is known that it picked up on Coronavirus, anything it goes on to predict in the future will likely be investigated further and a strategy implemented to prevent any spread and another epidemic. Relying on AI to send out an alert, rather than government agencies to report information about infectious disease, allows us to get real time information rather than waiting for information, which by the time it is released could mean that it is too late to prepare sufficiently. BlueDot also cross-referenced global airline ticketing data to anticipate where Wuhan was most connected with, and where the outbreak would spread to first. It has also correctly predicted that the Zika virus would spread to Florida, and that Ebola would leave West Africa. Despite being a start-up, BlueDot has shown promising work, which could have a huge impact in the future.

We are currently experiencing unprecedented events and are going through a technological revolution. With technology advancing rapidly in so many sectors, many are complaining that large companies are using Big Data for monetary gain. Using data and developing technology to predict and prevent disease outbreaks will be hugely beneficial to all citizens, and will be sure to convince people that their data is being used for the good of people, rather than being sold on to corporations and them not seeing the benefit of it. Models for managing crises associated with disease transmission, air pollution, flooding or sewage discharge, for example, could be embedded in the city ecosystems in advance so that they can be controlled more effectively.