China’s Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu boost health tech efforts

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A woman shows a test for the new coronavirus.

Sebastian Gollnow | picture alliance | Getty Images

China’s tech giants are accelerating their efforts in the field of health-care technology using cloud computing and artificial intelligence, as the country looks to contain the fast-spreading new coronavirus.      

While U.S. technology firms from Apple to Microsoft have spoken publicly about their push into health tech, China’s companies have been quietly working in the background.

But with the outbreak of the coronavirus, Beijing has called on the country’s tech giants to pitch in to fight the outbreak. Tech firms have expanded their surveillance capabilities to help the government track where people who have potentially been in contact with the virus are located.

And now, the Chinese tech giants are also boosting their push into health care with a focus on providing tools to help the medical industry.

So what are they up to?

Alibaba

Alibaba runs some of China’s biggest e-commerce platforms, a booming cloud computing business, a logistics network, and one of the country’s biggest mobile payment apps Alipay via its subsidiary Ant Financial. 

It has leaned into these to introduce some health-care features. In January, Alibaba launched an online clinic service on its Alipay and Taobao apps for users in Hubei province, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated and the region with the most number of cases. That service, which allowed people to get online consultations with doctors, was later extended to Beijing residents.

In February, the company launched a drug delivery service for people requiring medicines to treat chronic diseases. It comes as hospitals are overburdened with coronavirus cases, and are sometimes left with little resources to help those with other chronic diseases who need urgent treatment.

Alibaba’s research arm also developed a new artificial intelligence algorithm to analyze computerized tomography (CT) scans. The company claims its AI can “identify the difference of images between the highly suspected coronavirus-infected pneumonia, slightly suspected, and non coronavirus-infected pneumonia within 20 seconds, with (an) accuracy rate up to 96%.”

The algorithm has been used in 26 hospitals across 16 provinces and municipalities, Alibaba said. And the technology will be made available “in the coming weeks” to more than 100 hospitals in China designated to treat coronavirus-affected patients.

Alibaba’s cloud unit made its platform free to global research institutions to help them accelerate their efforts in so-called gene sequencing related to the coronavirus. This could also help scientists come up with a vaccine faster.

Baidu

Baidu is China’s largest search engine but has also developed AI capabilities too. 

It currently runs an online doctor consultation platform and the company has made that free for any coronavirus-related queries. Baidu said the platform has handled over 2.8 million inquiries from users about the virus and hosts over 100,000 doctors to answer questions. 

Baidu is also giving an algorithm it calls “LinerFold” for free to gene testing agencies, epidemic control centers and research institutions globally. The algorithm is able to help scientists understand the genetic make up of the coronavirus, and could help efforts to develop a vaccine. 

“The special situation of the epidemic has created huge demand for online medical services and information. The public has been using the internet to gain information about the latest development of the epidemic and professional health-care services,” Yang Minglu, general manager of Baidu’s health-care business unit told CNBC.

“In the future, Baidu health care will continue to focus on technology research and development as well as intelligent health care system, building a one-stop health management service platform and actively participate in China’s public health development.”

Tencent

Tencent is one of the largest video gaming companies in the world but it also runs China’s most popular messaging platform, WeChat. 

The company has launched free online health consultation services via five online health-care platforms through WeChat. There is also a so-called “chatbot” which allows users to ask questions and get basic diagnosis. A chatbot is an automated messaging service. 

Tencent has also opened up its supercomputing facility to help researchers find a cure to the virus, CNN reported. Supercomputers can run processes much faster than regular computers.

Huawei 

Huawei is known for its telecommunications networking equipment and smartphones, but it also has a small but growing cloud business.

Its cloud unit, along with a company called GrandOmics Biosciences, developed a tool to understand the genetic make-up of the coronavirus. 

Huawei technology is also being used by researchers to screen drugs in order to find one that might be suitable for the treatment of coronavirus. 

The company’s cloud computing platform is also being used for the analysis of CT scans which could help identify patients with the virus. 

“Health technology has been increasingly important for the medical and health industry moving forward, Huawei is dedicated to helping the industry to accelerate the AI research and applications with our innovative technology and solutions,” a spokesperson told CNBC.

DiDi

DiDi is China’s biggest ride-hailing service, but it too has a cloud computing business.

The company opened up its cloud facilities for free to research and relief projects related to the coronavirus. DiDi told CNBC that some “medical data analysis organizations have applied and started to use this service.” 

“Medical and relief organizations, including research organizations, need computing resources for data analysis, intervention simulation, and national/regional logistics and organizational support, especially in the case of a rapidly evolving outbreak situation,” DiDi said in a statement. 

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