Boston startup using AI, remote monitoring to fight coronavirus

A Boston-based startup has been tapped to help doctors and researchers in Hong Kong combat the growing coronavirus outbreak.

Biofourmis is using its wearable and artificial intelligence technology to aid with disease surveillance and to help researchers better understand the illness. 

The company's technology is being used as part of a first-of-its-kind national disease surveillance program administered by the University of Hong Kong for Hong Kong’s Department of Health, Biofourmis CEO Kuldeep Singh Rajput told FierceHealthcare.

The program also includes Hong Kong-based Harmony Medical Inc., which is Biofourmis’ joint venture partner for the China region.

Rajput said clinicians and researchers in Hong Kong are using Biofourmis' remote monitoring and analytics platform in two key ways: Clinicians are using the technology to remotely monitor coronavirus infected and suspected patients and to apply personalized predictive analytics to provide more effective interventions, he said.

Researchers also want to use remote monitoring technology to better understand the disease. Clinicians and researchers are still learning how this strain of the coronavirus affects the body.

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It is hoped that the use of the AI and remote monitoring platform will rapidly lead to a better epidemiological understanding of COVID-19 to improve the outcomes of Hong Kong citizens—as well as the global community—as more people become infected, according to Professor David Chung Wah Siu, M.D., of the Department of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

"Being able to capture all the clinical data as well as labs and physiological data will help researchers to holistically understand the disease and come up with better novel treatments," Rajput said.


The AI-enabled disease monitoring program also has international implications and applicability to the U.S. as the COVID-19 continues to spread. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that the global number of people infected (PDF) by the virus nears 100,000, and these numbers will likely go up as there are self-sustaining clusters continuing to expand in South Korea, Japan, parts of Europe, Iran and the U.S.

The partnership between Biofourmis and the University of Hong Kong is an extension of a separate trial to remotely monitor up to 500 chronic heart failure patients to detect potentially lethal arrhythmias.

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In less than two weeks, the company was able to take its FDA-cleared Biovitals Analytics platform being used in that trial and customize it to be used for the coronavirus initiative, Rajput said. 

The venture backed-startup has raised about $45 million to date, according to Crunchbase.

In 2019, the company scored $35 million in series B financing led by Sequoia India, part of Sequoia Capital, and MassMutual Ventures, the venture fund of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, Aviva Ventures and SGInnovate also participated. 

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In Hong Kong, volunteer participants who are quarantined in their homes or hospitals will wear a device with built-in sensors on their upper arm 24 hours a day, through which data including their body temperatures, respiratory rates, blood oxygen levels and heart rates will be sent to a digital platform for real-time monitoring and analysis.

These signals are then fed through advanced AI and machine learning techniques to flag key physiological changes that could indicate disease progression.

Patients with COVID-19 deterioration commonly exhibit symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, all of which can be closely monitored through related physiological parameters, Rajput said.

The system also includes a smartphone app that asks patients questions about symptoms. Physicians use a dashboard to observe patients and can be alerted to significant changes or problems.

Hong Kong currently has 104 confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to the latest WHO data. The centerpiece of Hong Kong's containment strategy is aggressively tracking down suspected cases and quickly quarantining anyone who's potentially been exposed.

At one point in February, the city had nearly 12,000 people in various forms of quarantine, NPR reported.

Currently, there are around 3,000 patients under quarantine in Hong Kong. The company aims to get 500 to 1,000 quarantined people onto its system in the next two to three weeks and then continue to scale up, Rajput said.

Biofourmis is in conversations with government agencies and other potential partners in various regions about applying its technology to monitor COVID-19.