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How Qure.ai is fighting COVID-19

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A Mumbai-based AI startup pivoted from screening for tuberculosis to detecting the coronavirus.

Amongst the health tech companies actively involved in the COVID-19 fight in recent months, Qure.ai, headquartered in Mumbai, is undertaking a truly worldwide effort, from Malawi to Oman, thanks largely to its strong foundations developing AI solutions for radiology.  

Qure.ai’s COVID-19 “story” started four years ago, when the startup was established. A risk score had then been developed in its automated screening for tuberculosis that took more than eight findings into account, looking at factors that included opacity and fibrosis, with the clinician making the final diagnosis.

When the coronavirus disease emerged, they realised that the same technology applied to tuberculosis could be extended to COVID-19 to assist clinical teams for triaging or progression monitoring of COVID-19 patients.

Qure.ai later offered an additional solution for remote patient management and disease monitoring purposes. Both solutions are now available on a monthly subscription basis. 

Technology aside, Qure.ai’s experience in optimising and deploying workflows on the ground, combined with live sites in 20 countries using its solutions, meant that it was well positioned to offer COVID-19 support when the disease broke out.

Chest X ray screening repurposed

At the end of February 2020 and the beginning of March in the early months of the pandemic, there was limited access to PCR test kits.

Qure.ai’s hypothesis was that it was difficult for clinical teams to determine whether patients should go home upon being tested or admitted immediately to hospital.

The startup repurposed and offered its x-ray AI solution qXR to existing customers, expanding their ability to detect COVID-19 as part of their existing TB screening efforts.

The solution was able to identify findings indicative of COVID-19 in a chest X-Ray, for instance an opacity, and also those that are counter-indicative such as fibrosis, in which case the coronavirus was not likely. Between the two buckets, there were 8-10 findings.

qXR was also able to pinpoint the location of the findings within the lung: most cases are bilateral and settling in the lower parts of the organ.

Based on these factors, a COVID-19 score was offered.

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The pivot to disease monitoring

The situation changed when cases of COVID-19 and access to test kits both grew, and so Qure.ai quickly responded. Customers asked for help with monitoring progression of the disease, rather than its detection, in the absence of any definitive treatment or drug therapy.

Quantifying the extent of the infection is a time-consuming step, and with the results being often inconsistent Qure.ai customers demanded a solution that was data-driven and replicable across multiple days.

Clinical protocol in Europe provided early guidance on this: the European College of Radiology for example released guidelines recommending the use of bedside imaging such as mobile X Rays or ultrasound for daily tracking of patients. 

qXR began quantifying what was detected, for example the percentage of lung impacted by an opacity, which was then adopted by Western hospitals in their progression monitoring.

These hospitals include Italian San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, for instance, to monitor disease progression, while Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, for instance, has also adopted qXR to help monitor COVID-19 progression in patients.

Additional users are based in Italy, Portugal, France, Mexico, the US, India and Pakistan, with talks ongoing with Australia, Peru and other countries.

Accurate data

Qure.ai has been sourcing diverse and large data sets from multiple countries for its algorithms. The current data access with the company is more than 7M scans and split almost equally between the Americas, Europe and Asia as the source of the data. This includes data from diverse patient settings and multiple equipment vendors.

This data sourcing is a significant effort and investment as in most countries, Qure.ai is not legally allowed to use client data to train an AI model for COVID-19 triage or diagnosis, owing to GDPR or privacy rules as the data belongs to the hospital or patient.

Qure.ai is therefore having to sign separate agreements with healthcare providers across the globe for data sharing agreements to build its AI models.

Algorithmic updates

The first version of the Qure.ai qXR algorithm was launched three years ago. With COVID, version 2.1 was brought out, and very soon the company shall launch qXR version 3.

While it’s continuously working on new updates, in accordance with a strict and stringent process, not every iteration goes out to the market.

There are 15-16 validation data sets, each from a different country, and enhanced improvement must be seen in all for it to be brought to production.

Every major change requires going back to the regulator, entailing documentation, cost and time. A new version every three months isn’t feasible.

Qure.ai is looking to continually improve on other fronts too. Two examples: avoiding false negatives through looking at X Rays of individuals who are asymptomatic and COVID-19 positive, and using CT scans as a secondary reference to improve accuracy.

Contact tracing and triaging

Qure.ai also repurposed tools aimed at contract tracing - qScout - with the goal of helping health systems monitor people while in isolation.

Through managing symptoms and triaging people remotely using the AI-powered tool, Qure.ai ensures that patients are only brought to the hospital at the right time, healthcare systems manage their workload and avoid placing a burden on limited infrastructure.

These remote monitoring tools were adapted from dashboards originally applied to help tuberculosis screening partners using Qure.ai’s AI solutions, especially in Africa and India.

Built in under 30 days, qScout was initially deployed at the Ministry of Health in Oman, for potential monitoring of 15,000 patients across the country using AI to minimise the intervention of medical personnel in early quarantine stages. The tool has now been in live use for approximately 3 months and has supported more than 40,000 people in self-monitoring and triage using its proprietary chatbot. 

The medical test program was integrated with an app already in use by the Ministry of Health, Tarassud Plus, which diagnoses, follows up and tracks the medical condition of individuals infected with COVID-19.

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