Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }
Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you make the most of staying home.
Visit the hub

Dr. Kamran Khan, founder and chief executive of Toronto-based BlueDot, is seen at his office in Toronto, on Feb. 14, 2020.

JORGE UZON/AFP/Getty Images

The Canadian researcher who was among the first to predict the deadly spread of COVID-19 says the world needs to change the way it monitors for and reacts to disease outbreaks.

Dr. Kamran Khan set out to make a “smoke alarm” that would detect disease outbreaks around the world when he created his pandemic-predicting software BlueDot.

Khan and his team of about 50 experts used big data and artificial intelligence to warn the world of a potentially serious viral outbreak three days before the World Health Organization, though they picked up on the signs even earlier.

Story continues below advertisement

Waiting for outbreaks to be declared typically takes too long, the University of Toronto professor of medicine and public health says, and the information often takes a long time to make it into the hands of the medical community and the public.

The world is changing, he says, and diseases are emerging with greater frequency and having bigger impacts.

Big data and artificial intelligence can provide a bird’s-eye view of diseases around the globe in real time, letting people move faster to quash new outbreaks.

It’s time we start using them, for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, Khan says.

By this point, BlueDot’s story is famous around the world.

The software scours hundreds of thousands of sources of information in 65 languages around the world all day, every day, to look for signs of trouble.

Khan received the first indication something was amiss in Wuhan, China, on New Year’s Eve. The algorithm picked up a blog post in Chinese describing a pneumonia outbreak involving about 20 people.

Story continues below advertisement

Within seconds, the program was able to sift through anonymized international flight itineraries to predict 20 places the outbreak might spread.

The outbreak the algorithm described bore serious similarities to the 2003 SARS outbreak. Khan and his team submitted their findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal on Jan. 6.

By the time the virus showed up in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 13, the smoke alarm was ringing.

“If you see a case show up outside of Wuhan in another country, it’s telling you that the outbreak is much bigger than a couple dozen cases. Maybe hundreds, maybe thousands,” Khan says.

“That’s the moment we were quite concerned.”

Of the 20 places BlueDot predicted the virus could spread, 12 were among the first destinations to report outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.

Story continues below advertisement

The embers landed in Canada, and the house has caught fire.

While Canada’s health-care system has struggled even to count the number of manually confirmed cases across the country due to archaic data gathering systems, Khan’s team in Toronto have used their technology to measure how well people have been sticking to public health advice.

Using anonymized cellphone data, they’ve been tracking how much people have been moving about as health officials urge them to stay home.

Khan refers to this as the “fire extinguisher” function of big data during a pandemic, allowing public health authorities to target their efforts where they’re needed most.

“When there’s only so many people, your human resources in the public health sector are finite, you can’t be everywhere,” he says.

As Canada gets farther from the crest of the first wave of the pandemic, and people begin moving around the country and around the world again, the smoke alarm is going to be important, Khan says.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re going to be thinking about introductions from other parts of the globe and trying to make sure that those embers are kind of snuffed out as quickly as possible,” he says.

This time, he hopes governments, institutions and individuals will be able to take smarter steps more quickly.

“We need to be using the latest in data and digital technologies to our advantage to do that,” he says.

What we do with the information also needs to change, he says.

Typically when a new outbreak is reported, public-health officials find out first. They share the information with governments, which then share it with the medical community and eventually the public and industry become aware.

That cascade of information means delayed reactions.

Story continues below advertisement

“If we are going to be able to be successful, we are going to have to empower the whole of society,” Khan says.

And if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that everyone needs to work to extinguish the fire together, he says.

Scott Gottlieb says we will be better prepared for a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, but a spike in new cases may also arrive at a time when other seasonal illness circulate. The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2017 and 2019 adds that Sweden leads Europe in coronavirus deaths despite attempts at herd immunity. The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

Related topics

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies