Artificial intelligence ‘may be able to calculate Covid-19 variant death risk’

·3-min read

New artificial intelligence that scans for heightened blood vessel inflammation could calculate someone’s risk of death from coronavirus and variants, researchers suggest.

The technology could be used to tailor treatment and give people the best chance of recovery, according to new research funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

Severe cases of Covid-19 have been associated with a cytokine storm.

This is where the spike protein of the virus causes the immune system to go into overdrive and produces a surge of damaging molecules called cytokines.

By using routine chest CT scans, researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a Covid-19 signature using machine learning.

It detects biological red flags in the fat surrounding blood vessels in the chest to measure the level of inflammation driven by cytokines in people infected with the virus.

Charalambos Antoniades is professor of cardiovascular medicine and BHF senior clinical research fellow at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford.

He said: “We have built an incredibly adaptable AI platform that tracks vascular disease by decoding information from blood vessel images obtained routinely during hospital admission, and integrating it with a large RNA bioresource from human tissue biopsies.

“By simply adding in one extra step to the routine care of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 who already have a CT scan, we can now detect patients at high risk of life-threatening complications and could potentially tailor their treatment to aid long-term recovery.

“But the benefits don’t stop there.

“We know that this exaggerated immune response to the virus can also cause abnormal blood clotting, and so we are developing this AI platform to specifically identify Covid-19 patients who are most at risk of having a future heart attack or stroke.

“We can also pivot our platform with ease to develop a new scanning ‘signature’ to better understand future viruses and diseases that take hold of our population.”

Researchers applied the Covid-19 signature to CT chest scans of 435 people admitted to hospitals in Oxford, Leicester and Bath, and compared the degree of inflammation and risk of death in people with and without Covid-19.

They found that for patients admitted to hospital, the level of cytokine-driven inflammation in the blood vessels was much higher in those with Covid-19, and even greater in patients infected by the Kent, or alpha, variant.

Researchers found that those with a high level of vascular inflammation were up to eight times more likely to die in hospital, and were most likely to respond well to the anti-inflammatory drug Dexamethasone.

Covid-19 patients with high vascular inflammation treated with Dexamethasone had a six-fold reduction in risk of dying compared to Covid-19 patients who were not given the drug.

Researchers say that by using this tool to obtain an inflammation score, patients found to have a lot of inflammation in their blood vessels, and therefore increased risk of death, could potentially be given anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce their risk and help their long-term recovery.

Clinical trials are now looking into the effectiveness of this approach presented at the British Cardiovascular Society conference.

Professor James Leiper, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “Over the past year we have supported our scientists to direct their expertise to help the global effort in understanding Covid-19.

“This research clearly demonstrates that Covid-19 is a powerful virus that can wreak havoc on our circulatory system, and that different variants are associated with different levels of risk.

“There are still a lot of unknowns relating to how the virus can impact our health in the long term, but this AI tool could ultimately help to save lives.”

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