Dr. Kamran Khan, founder of BlueDot

Dr. Kamran Khan, founder of BlueDot

It’s been a year since their technology cautioned us against the virus, so we’re looking back at the brilliance behind BlueDot.

It was December 31, 2019, and people around the world were saying goodbye to another year and another decade. In Canada, hope and optimism brimmed from coast to coast to coast; we celebrated and got ready to usher in the next decade with friends and family, blissfully optimistic about the joy, health, wealth and opportunities 2020 would bring.
In Toronto, while thousands of bundled-up Ontarians stood shoulder to shoulder, relishing in the entertainment and huddling to keep warm at Nathan Phillips Square and other party locales across the city, one startup was on the brink of making a serious discovery. They didn’t know it that night, but they were quickly gaining insight into a worldwide event that would make an entrance after the festivities came to a close — an event that would take hold of the New Year the likes of which our generation has never seen. “In early January, we published the first peer-reviewed scientific publication on COVID-19, even before the virus had a name,” says Dr. Kamran Khan, founder of BlueDot. 
BlueDot is a digital health company with a first-of-its-kind, global early-warning technology for infectious diseases. Founded in 2013 by Khan, a practicing infectious disease physician and a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Toronto, BlueDot was born out of Khan’s personal experiences as a dedicated frontline healthcare worker during the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto. Combining human and artificial intelligence, BlueDot’s Insights technology tracks outbreaks from more than 150 infectious diseases and syndromes worldwide in 65 languages. Tracking is consistent — it happens every 15 minutes around the clock, and researchers can anticipate the potential for global spread and impact. BlueDot’s technology uses artificial intelligence to scan more than 100,000 articles each day, searching for official and unofficial news of infectious disease events or outbreaks. It also automatically assesses the risk of importation to locations of interest based on the drivers of disease, including clinical attributes for 150 infectious diseases, local mobility models describing how people move between communities and airports, and global travel patterns comprised of more than five-billion airline passenger trips per year. A team of subject matter experts then reviews the outputs before publishing them to their Insights dashboard and notifying their clients in a dozen countries — including the US and Canada. 
BlueDot’s Insights technology empowers national and international health agencies, hospitals and businesses to better anticipate and respond to emerging infectious disease threats, whether originating from natural events, accidents or deliberate acts. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one of many infectious diseases that BlueDot tracks every day. In 2016, BlueDot’s use of human and artificial intelligence helped to track and predict the global spread of serious infectious diseases, including the Zika virus. When Zika broke out in Brazil, BlueDot analytics identified that southern Florida would be a prime location for an outbreak, six months before an outbreak appeared in Miami. 

On December 31, 2019, when the world was ushering in 2020, BlueDot’s unique system detected news of the outbreak in Wuhan, China — mere hours after the first cases in Wuhan were identified. BlueDot’s global surveillance platform then analyzed billions of data points to conclude which international cities would be at greatest risk. This happened within seconds of initial detection. At that time, BlueDot pinpointed four of the first six cities to contract the virus — Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo. “In our study, Bangkok and Tokyo were at the very top of our list and were the first and second city in the world to see cases of COVID-19 outside of mainland China.” says Khan. “But when cases appeared in those cities, we immediately knew that the outbreak in Wuhan had to be much larger than the official numbers were indicating. That’s the moment when I realized this had a real chance of turning into a worldwide outbreak or pandemic.”

After reviewing the data, BlueDot alerted their clients — public health officials in 12 countries, airlines and frontline hospitals like Humber River in Toronto — that same day, almost a week in advance of public announcements by national and international health organizations. Of course, we now know that what followed — with unbelievable speed — was a global pandemic. 

Bluedot App on an iPad and iPhone
The virus first spread across Asia with a vengeance, then — as thousands of travellers were also heading to the United States — it spread into California, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. By February 25, 2020, the World Health Organization saw the novel respiratory virus as one with the potential to become a pandemic. About a week later, in early March, it was reported that the virus had spread to 58 countries and had infected more than 87,000 people globally, leaving 104 dead (outside of China).
It was around that time when news about BlueDot’s AI technology and early detection had spread as quickly as the virus, and government officials — not only in Canada but in the US, too — took notice. In March, while US President Donald Trump was telling America to remain calm, the state of California was already enlisting the help of BlueDot and was one of the first states in the country to lock down its cities and track which hospitals would be hit the hardest.  
With the pandemic in full force, countries around the world declared health emergencies due to COVID-19 and with no vaccine available, responses to COVID became largely focused on isolating confirmed cases and quarantining their contacts. Soon, cases began to appear in communities without known links to other confirmed cases, forcing public health officials to revert to community-level social-distancing interventions. 
To effectively “flatten the epidemic curve,” understanding where and when these interventions were working — and where they were not — became essential. In response, BlueDot pivoted its technology to partner with organizations and governments — both in Canada and the US — to assist with time-sensitive public health decisions and gage the effectiveness of social-distancing interventions. 
To do this, the company analyzed anonymous data on the locations of mobile devices worldwide and aggregated the data to the level of populations to estimate the size of populations that were adhering to social-distancing rules. This data was then used as inputs into models to help organizations and governments plan and respond to the pandemic in the most effective, efficient and coordinated way. “No one would ever wish for an event like the one we are living through, but there was a sense of accomplishment knowing that the global early-warning system we had been diligently building day in and day out at BlueDot for the past seven years, did what it was designed to do,” Khan says. 
From BlueDot’s pivot, incredible partnerships were born. The Public Health Agency of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, Humber River Hospital and the city of Chicago all leveraged BlueDot’s Insights software to track and assess both global and local infectious disease outbreaks, including COVID. Through the use of BlueDot’s software, they are now able to dynamically query and visualize a clean surveillance feed of infectious disease outbreaks around the world, better preparing for potential outbreaks that could impact the health and safety of their patients, staff and communities. 
BlueDot has also joined up with Health Canada, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and the state of California — they are utilizing BlueDot’s technology to evaluate the effectiveness of physical-distancing measures, the risk of importation of COVID-19 from international hotspots and the mobility of the virus. For the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in particular, BlueDot’s technology has become critical in evaluating the mobility of the virus in and out of key infrastructures such as hospitals and long-term care facilities. Their technology has been adopted by The Department of National Defence (DND), it’s been using the Insights software to track and assess infectious disease outbreaks both locally and globally and has also been receiving regular COVID-19 outlook reports that contain customized intelligence on its spread. With BlueDot’s software and the COVID-19 outlook reports, the DND is now able to assess the risk that infectious disease outbreaks pose to the health and safety of the armed forces. And BlueDot has also continued its partnership with Air Canada — one of the country’s largest airlines — so they can leverage data obtained by BlueDot to understand the risk that infectious diseases pose to their business operations and how to better protect the health of their staff. 
There’s no doubt that BlueDot has come a long way in its ability to rapidly turn global data into powerful insights, but turning insights into actions requires partnerships. “We’re working hard to build those partnerships now so that together we can build greater resilience to infectious disease threats,” says Khan. “And we’re excited to be empowering different segments of society — government, industry and healthcare — so they can each do their part to create a healthier, safer and more prosperous world.” 

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