Medical AI in 2020: Europe lags behind, Covid-19 steams ahead

Chloe Kent 8 July 2020 (Last Updated July 8th, 2020 16:22)

As 2020 continues to test the world’s patience and resilience, Verdict Medical Devices takes a closer look at what this strange year has meant for the medical AI sector so far.

Medical AI in 2020: Europe lags behind, Covid-19 steams ahead
Far from hindering progress in this particular area, Covid-19 has been identified as a factor driving growth. Credit: Shutterstock

Medical artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), much like almost every other facet of modern technology, have been drastically sidetracked by Covid-19. Just as manufacturers of automobiles and electronics have pivoted to ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), medical AI projects across the world have shifted their focus on to the pandemic in 2020.

AI and ML technology is now being used to narrow down potential Covid-19 drug candidates, predict the seasonal spread of the infection across populations and even attempt to diagnose the disease from chest X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans when conventional tests are in short supply.

As for the long-term impact of the pandemic on medical AI, according to a recent MarketsandMarkets report the global healthcare AI market is actually projected to keep growing in 2020 despite the pandemic’s disruption of the world economy. Not only that, but it’s predicted to grow at quite a significant scale, rising from being worth $4.9bn this year to $45.2bn by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 44.9%.

Far from hindering progress in this particular area, Covid-19 has been identified as a factor driving this growth, with adoption of AI and ML by multiple pharmaceutical companies trying to expedite vaccine or drug development processes giving the industry a fairly significant boost.

Covid-19 doesn’t mean AI has ground to a standstill

This Covid-19 shift for the AI industry doesn’t mean all projects in other areas have ground to a standstill either: the University of Sydney has been awarded more than $7m in federal funding for research projects using AI to diagnose and treat neurological and mental health disorders; researchers at Oregon Health & Science University recently published research into an AI-driven method to help people with type 1 diabetes better manage their glucose levels; and Elucid Bio, a company that offers AI-powered software designed to predict the occurrence of stroke, has now demonstrated that its algorithm is 70% more accurate than conventional stroke monitoring at predicting events.

Elucid Bio’s technology is currently in clinical use and may have applications for informing risk for Covid-19 patients, who have been experiencing strokes at a significantly higher rate. The software can identify endothelial damage, a subtle but potentially deadly effect of Covid-19 that can cause the blood clotting that leads to stroke.

Elucid Bio CEO Blake Richards said: “I think the impact that I’ve seen the most is that Covid-19 has pushed forward the more rapid adoption of some newer technologies that wouldn’t necessarily have been given that kind of urgency. It has accelerated what would have occurred organically over a longer timeframe.”

Europe is lagging behind on intellectual property

It’s not just pharma companies working on vaccine and drug candidates for Covid-19 that have given medical AI a boost. Research from economic consultancy firm OxFirst indicates that the pandemic has triggered further interest in modelling pandemics.

OxFirst also found that the medical space dominates AI development at large, particularly in the areas of medical diagnosis, medical simulation and data mining. However, despite its vast medtech economy, Europe lagged far behind other continents in terms of AI patent filings. No European company can be found among the top 20 AI patent owners.

The AI market is dominated by Korean tech giant Samsung with 5,073 patents, followed by China’s Tencent and the US’s IBM, which both have 2,062 patents. Compared to the over 100,000 AI filings with the Chinese Patent Office, the European Patent Office has barely more than 5,000 AI filings, appearing negligible in comparison.

OxFirst executive director Dr Roya Ghafele said: “Even a simple assessment suggests that adopting a patent valuation perspective enables educated business decisions. After all, every investor and manager alike is keen to maximise returns while minimising risks. It is time to embrace intellectual property as an asset.”