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Wits develops AI project with York University to tackle COVID-19 in Africa

- Wits University

The International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) grants $1.25 Million to the project.

The Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence and Public Health Data Modelling Consortium has secured a $1.25 million grant from the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) for the Predictive modelling and forecasting of the transmission of COVID-19 in Africa using Artificial Intelligence project.

The Consortium will be co-chaired by Prof. Jianhong Wu of York University and Prof. Bruce Mellado of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa. It will build on an  existing South African-led COVID-19 dashboard developed by Mellado’s Institute for Collider Particle Physics, and transmission models and simulation technologies that have been developed both at York University and the University of the Witwatersrand. These technologies have been widely adopted by government agencies and international organisations in recent months, including the Gauteng Department of Health in South Africa.

Mellado adds: “Particle physics harnesses large amounts of data and uses artificial intelligence to understand the data. These skills are transferrable to the problem solving of complex systems, such as the modelling of the COVID-19 pandemic or future crises.

“Artificial Intelligence through machine learning provides a unique suite of tools and methodologies that allows analysts to learn from it. This is essential in solving complex modelling problems,” explains Mellado. “We view this exercise as a form of technology transfer revolving around skills and knowledge developed in solving problems of fundamental interactions in nature. In solving these problems we are also able to create an ecosystem of knowledge in Artificial Intelligence that feeds back into Particle Physics as well.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we know it, but it has also galvanised our rapid adaptation to change and the adoption of new technologies,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, incoming Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Wits is proud to collaborate with leading scholars from York University on this multidisciplinary project to develop new technologies to strengthen the fight against COVID-19. We are in a crucial moment in the life of this pandemic and it is important that we work as a collective for the benefit of society.”

“This important and timely collaboration will combine York’s research strength in disease modelling, global health, artificial intelligence and emergency management, with AI and modelling expertise in Africa and the practical skills and sensitivity that only local organisations can provide,” says Rhonda L. Lenton, President and Vice-Chancellor of York University. “We are excited to join with colleagues in Africa as part of the global effort to contain this devastating pandemic.” 

Prof. Jude Kong, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science and a member of the National COVID-19 Modelling Rapid Response Task Force at York is the Canadian Principal Investigator.

“Working with organisations in Africa, we will develop models and simulations of COVID-19 that are relevant to specific cities and the areas adjacent to them,” says Kong. “This will give municipal and national health authorities, and policy-makers from across Africa the practical tools that they need to suppress subsequent waves of infections or mitigate their impact. It will enable us to look at the effectiveness of public health interventions to determine if a particular intervention is appropriate, equitable, feasible and cost-efficient.”

About Professor Bruce Mellado

Bruce Mellado is a Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, a Senior Researcher of iThemba LABS and serves as the Director of the Institute for Collider Particle Physics. Mellado is the National Contact Physicist of South Africa at the ATLAS experiment at CERN and is the co-Chair of the Nuclear Particle and Radiation Division of South African Institute of Physics. He is a B1 rated researcher of the National Research Foundation and a member of the Gauteng Premier’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee, where he leads work on predictions for the Provincial Government. Mellado holds a PhD from Columbia University