At a time when the risk of emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases is increasing, an international team led by York University successfully competed to receive a CAD7.25 million grant from IDRC to help tackle the issue. This grant will enable the research team to work alongside countries in the Global South to develop equitable and responsible artificial intelligence (AI) solutions and big data approaches to improve public health outcomes.
The five-year project, Global South Artificial Intelligence for Pandemic and Epidemic Preparedness and Response Network, is borne out of the promise of AI solutions across the Global South to improve the health system response to infectious disease outbreaks. It also reflects the need to examine the important ethical, legal and social implications of these solutions on populations most susceptible to disease and with compromised well-being.
Led by York University Assistant Professor Jude Kong of the Faculty of Science, this project will support prevention, early detection, preparedness, mitigation and control of emerging or re-emerging infectious disease outbreaks in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa.
“York University is honoured to have this opportunity to create positive change by fostering more equitable and responsible approaches to complex healthcare needs through the ethical use of artificial intelligence,” says York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton. “This project will help us strengthen our impact on several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including good health and well-being, as well as gender equality and partnerships. I’d like to thank IDRC for their ongoing support of York's commitment to collaboratively addressing pressing global issues and congratulate Jude Kong on all his work in this area.”
Globally, as humans continue to encroach on animal habitats and climate changes worsens, incidents of disease outbreaks are expected to increase in severity and frequency — often stemming from viruses, bacteria and parasites that jump from animals to people. These outbreaks can have calamitous consequences that cascade across socio-economic boundaries, particularly affecting vulnerable populations, magnifying social inequities, and putting pressure on weak healthcare systems, which further exacerbate underlying inequities and disparities.
“As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside outbreaks such as Ebola and hMPXV, previously known as monkeypox, IDRC’s commitment to supporting innovative and locally championed solutions from LMICs is renewed and further deepened,” says IDRC President Jean Lebel. “We are delighted to build on IDRC’s deep experience in using AI to solve pressing social and economic challenges by supporting the team at York University in funding thought leaders in the LMICs to develop, use and scale responsible AI solutions to strengthen health systems. This collaborative effort will foreground AI applications that are ethical, respect privacy, and support gender equality and inclusive benefits across low-resource settings.”
The project will develop a diverse, multi-regional and interdisciplinary network of partners and teams to help address gaps in knowledge, capacities and solutions, and better understand how AI can improve public health preparedness and response. It will promote Southern-led equitable and ethical use of AI and big data to improve public health preparedness and response, identify risks, conduct predictive modelling and provide evidence-based recommendations for public health policy and action.
“It is important to design, manage and govern AI and big data approaches using a health-equity and gender-equality lens to avoid amplifying existing inequalities leading to the possibility of significant harm rather than tremendous benefits,” says Kong, the project’s executive director and director of the Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence and Data Innovation Consortium (ACADIC).
The goal is to ensure vulnerable and at-risk populations are included in disease outbreak management and policies, including racialized visible minorities, women, geographically isolated individuals, Indigenous communities, migrants and refugees, unhoused people and the socio-economically underserved. COVID-19 has underlined the need for timely, accurate, and reliable data to inform evidence-based public health decision-making.
“AI techniques have developed rapidly over the last decade and the ability to store large data sets has led to novel methods of analysis, allowing for modelling predictions on a scale that was previously not possible,” says Kong. “Emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases present global challenges, and as such, international communication and shared strategies, which build on varying types of expertise, are required to successfully address them. This project is a small step in that direction.”