During the corona pandemic, it has been necessary for the authorities to act quickly and use available population data, for example, to understand what part of the population is at greater risk of becoming seriously ill. Such data can also be used to monitor who is being tested and identify how the willingness to vaccinate differs within various groups. Population and health data registers contain such necessary information to a certain degree, but practical and legal obstacles have meant that available data has not always been fully utilized.
“We hope to enable society to be better prepared for future pandemics and other health crises by using AI and machine learning. To do so, we need various perspectives to understand how large amounts of data can be used both legally and technically”, explains Jonas Björk, professor in epidemiology at Lund University.
By analysing travel patterns, social conditions, country of origin and other factors it is possible to get indications about the groups at greater risk of being infected at various stages of a pandemic. Although AI systems can be used to handle large amounts of information and subsequently suggest for example who should be prioritized for testing, using such prioritizations must be be weighed against concerns of discrimination and personal integrity.
“Certain types of disease control measures, for instance measuring body temperature, may interfere with human rights such as the right to privacy. In our project we will analyse to what extent such interferences can be permissible”, says Yana Litins'ka, researcher in medical law, at the Faculty of Law, Lund University.
Following population movements via mobile signals during the onset of a pandemic may allow predicting the spread of disease in a country. Mobile data can also clarify how rules and recommendations from the authorities are complied with. It is also possible to predict disease outbreaks locally, or more generally by monitoring when Google searches for coughs or flu increases, which is already done routinely.
“There is a lot of innovative and interesting research in the field. We want to contribute to that puzzle by investigating how the combination of smart applications could be together with register data to be able to act faster and with better precision”, says Jonas Björk.
Another important part of the research project is a novel and easy-to-use equipment for blood tests, which was developed by the biotechnology company Xerum together with researchers at Umeå University. It is now regularly sent by mail to nursing homes in two different parts of Sweden. The blood samples taken by persons themselves, relatives, or staff are then sent back for analysis. This way, it is possible to monitor the immunity of persons who may otherwise have difficulty getting to healthcare facilities for checkups, and enables the identification of potentially vulnerable groups in society whose immunity wanes more quickly. In this way, vaccination programmesprograms can be tailored to different needs.
“There are many people involved in this project, and we speak slightly different languages based on our research profiles, but we agree on issues and concepts that involve us all. It can be challenging at times, but at the same time it is incredibly creative and exciting”, concludes Malin Inghammar, senior consultant in infectious diseases at Skåne University Hospital.