The pandemic fast-tracked technological deployment in public health and medicine. Everything from contact-tracing apps to services offering remote doctor appointments. But nowhere has the role of technology — specifically artificial intelligence — been more hotly debated than in the field of drug discovery. Advocates point to the pandemic as proof of its value in healthcare even as critics dismiss its use in drug discovery as “hype”, reports Hannah Kuchler.
In January 2020, scientists at the pharmaceutical company BenevolentAI used artificial intelligence algorithms to trawl through 50mn medical journals to search for approved drugs that could be repurposed to treat the disease. The scientists and the algorithm narrowed down the search to baricitinib, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis — all in a matter of four days. The Eli Lilly drug tackled both the virus and the body’s inflammatory reaction. The event marked the first time AI had discovered a drug, already in widespread use, that could be redeployed.