The Canadian AI Firm that Detected Covid–19 Before the CDC and WHO


How AI made in Canada is helping protect travellers around the world.

Infectious disease physician Dr. Kamran Khan has been following deadly outbreaks for more than two decades and was on the front lines in Toronto during the SARS crisis in 2003. The world had never seen an outbreak quite like SARS, and it was clear to Dr. Khan that it wouldn’t be the last.

In 2013, he founded BlueDot, a tech company that uses big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to track the spread of potentially serious emerging illnesses around the world. BlueDot predicted the Zika outbreak six months before it spread to Florida. Then, last winter, BlueDot warned the world about the virus we now know as Covid–19 emerging in Wuhan, China, and predicted the next 11 cities where the novel coronavirus would strike.

“Our infectious disease early warning system creates a foundation to spread knowledge around the world faster than any outbreak,” says Dr. Khan. For Air Canada, that means having a bird’s–eye view of global infectious disease risk to inform timely decisions on everything from flight schedules to cleaning protocols. Dr. Jim Chung sat down with Dr. Khan to learn how it all works – and how it can make travel safer.

April 6, 2021

“We’re excited about the solutions we’re now developing to help travellers protect themselves from dangerous infectious diseases wherever they might be in the world.”

Dr. Chung How did you use AI to detect Covid–19  ahead of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization?

Dr. Khan To detect threats at their earliest stages, our system uses AI to process vast amounts of online data in 65 languages, searching for early signals of outbreaks involving more than 100 different diseases and syndromes – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It doesn’t rely solely on official news of outbreaks reported by government agencies, but also analyzes information generated through digital media, health blogs and other online sources.

On the morning of December 31, 2019, the system picked up an article from Wuhan, China, describing an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases. This event captured my attention, given the number of parallels to the emergence of SARS in 2003. My team submitted results of this analysis for publication in the open–access, peer–reviewed scientific publication Journal of Travel Medicine on January 8, 2020, in order to make the data available to anyone.

Dr. C. In 2019, Air Canada was the first airline to subscribe to BlueDot Insights in response to Ebola outbreaks. What is the biggest benefit to passengers as a result?

Dr. K. Peace of mind. Though it’s all happening in the background, passengers should know that Air Canada is using BlueDot’s outbreak risk software every single day to track and assess global infectious disease risk. That informs timely decisions to protect the health and safety of passengers and crews.

Dr. C. How has access to BlueDot data helped Air Canada adjust its safety protocols in the past?

Dr. K. Air Canada was using BlueDot’s epidemic intelligence well before Covid–19 appeared on the scene. With early warnings about events like a measles outbreak at Hong Kong’s international airport and a hand–foot–and–mouth outbreak at a Caribbean resort, Air Canada was able to quickly implement additional screening and sanitization measures to protect their crews and passengers.

Dr. C. How might AI continue to help us mitigate risk, build resilience and shape the future of travel?

Dr. K. The key word here is resilience. Outbreaks appear around the world all the time, and we all need to be prepared. Artificial intelligence helps us detect and assess disease threats early, while human intelligence helps us put those threats into context. I envision a world where the combination of human and artificial intelligence empowers the whole of society, where organizations and individuals are empowered to protect themselves and the world around us. Ultimately, that’s how we’ll build the resilience we need.

8 January 2020

  • Date BlueDot submitted its first paper on a novel coronavirus discovered in Wuhan, China.

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A portrait of Dr. Jim Chung with an Air Canada pin on his suit jacket lapel

Dr. Jim Chung holds a master’s degree in aviation medicine and trained as a flight surgeon in the Canadian Armed Forces. He practised as an emergency–medicine physician in Toronto prior to joining Air Canada as chief medical officer in 2009.