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African smartphone users could help find COVID-19 treatment while sleeping

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African mobile users could help researchers find an effective treatment for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) by simply downloading an app and letting it run on their smartphones while they sleep.

The Vodafone Foundation and scientists from Imperial College London are using their DreamLab app to speed up coronavirus research, using the processing power of smartphones in Africa and across the globe to help analyze complex data. The data will help scientists identify existing drugs and food-based molecules with antiviral properties, ultimately enabling tailored treatments for patients with coronavirus.

The DreamLab app was originally developed by Vodafone Foundation Australia as a way for people to support cancer research while their phones charged overnight. Now a new Corona-AI project has launched on the app, which will use the same technology to help in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

Smartphone users in Ghana, Lesotho and South Africa can now help. The app is also available for download in Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Romania, UK, Portugal and Germany; it will be launching in Ireland, Greece, Turkey and Albania from June 1.

DreamLab is free to download and free to use for Vodafone and Vodacom customers who won't incur any data costs. It can also be used across other networks, with users choosing how much data they wish to donate, or connecting via Wi-Fi.

The project combines artificial intelligence (AI) and the processing power of idle smartphones to speed up the discovery of novel antiviral components in existing medicines and help the hunt for antiviral molecules in foods.

The app works by creating a network of smartphones to power a virtual supercomputer, capable of processing billions of calculations, without collecting or disclosing users' location data. No personal data is downloaded to or processed from the user's device, Vodafone promises.

When asked for more details about the app's privacy settings, a Vodafone spokesperson told Connecting Africa that the app may use user's activity information for analytics purposes "but this will be done on an anonymous and aggregated basis".

"The app requests access to photos, media, files permission in order to store the tiny research problems whilst they are being calculated and solved by your phone. DreamLab will only access the files it has created in the files directories. DreamLab does not need access to any of your private information or photos to be able to solve tiny research problems," the group said.

While traditional research methods could take years to develop, the mobile cloud-based processing approach of DreamLab can drastically reduce the time taken to analyze the huge amount of data that exists.

"A desktop computer running 24 hours a day would take decades to process the data, but a network of 100,000 smartphones running overnight could do the job in just a couple of months," Vodafone Foundation said in a statement.

"We urgently need new treatments to tackle Covid-19. There are existing drugs out there that might work to treat it, but we need to do complex analyses using artificial intelligence to find out which molecule or combinations of molecules might be able to disrupt the virus when it's inside the body. All of this takes a huge amount of computing power and DreamLab enables us to do this important work in a much shorter timeframe," explains Dr. Kirill Veselkov from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, who is leading the research.

The app is available in the App store for iOS or Play Store for Android.

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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