By World Healthcare Journal-
Imagine being able to test for Covid-19 just by talking down the phone. This is what a group of Spanish researchers believe they’ll be able to come up with in the very near future as a possible alternative to the tests currently being carried out - which are not all proving to be 100 per cent efficient or are snail-paced in providing results.
The multidisciplinary team made up from members of the regional Basque government’s health department, the Basque Foundation for Health Investigation and Innovation, the Virgen de la Arrixaca Hospital in Murcia and the AI company Biometric Vox, claim the test will confirm a COVID 19 infection just from analysing the tell-tale sound waves of people’s voices.
According to Carlos Gavilán, Business Director of Biometric Vox, the test is still in development as team members collect voice samples from patients in different phases of contagion and from people who have not been infected. The results will be fed in to AI programs which will compare voice patterns according to their level of infection and produce an algorithm capable of identifying future cases - just by analysing pre-established phrases spoken down the phone.
“Everyone has a unique and exclusive voice pattern in much the same way people have unique fingerprints”, says Gavilán. “Alterations to these patterns caused by diseases could also be unique. ”
Gavilán says the idea sprang from an ongoing project initiated by Dr. Domingo Pascual Figal, the chief cardiologist at the Virgen de la Arrixaca hospital, who noted that patients with acute cardiac pathologies shared similarly altered voice patterns when tested, thus enabling doctors to detect attacks in future victims.
What makes this early warning ideal in tracking Covid 19 is the way the virus affects voice patterns directly due to its impact on the respiratory system.
"The human vocal system,” adds Gavilán, “is divided into three parts: respiratory system, phonatory system and resonant chamber. Thanks to the possibility of using algorithms based on artificial intelligence, we can correlate the physiological effects of the virus on the respiratory and phonatory apparatus with voice alteration patterns”. According to Gavilán, previous studies have managed to identify markers of more than 20 respiratory ailments this way and distinguish Covid-19 from others.
Where this test would win over others is in the early detection of infected patients, since voice distortion produced by the virus’ attack on the upper respiratory system is present from the start, even in patients who have very light symptoms or in self-diagnosed “asymptomatics”.
“This is where the available tests might not give you a satisfactory result,” says Pascual Figal. “The RT-PCR and serologic tests are not accessible and efficient at the onset of the infection, whereas voice pattern testing would be quick and the results available within hours. ”
Pascual Figal first saw the advantages of voice testing in patients with cardiac pathologies. “People with heart attack symptoms usually call health centres with their concerns, but it’s often difficult to discern over the phone between unrelated symptoms such as acute anxiety and the onset of heart attack. ” With the advantages of AI, says Pascual, “we could help to identify the problem immediately and act accordingly. ”
Pascual Figal and the team at Biometric Vox joined forces to start work on the software required to develop a voice detection system for acute cardiac pathologies earlier this year, but the Covid-19 onslaught in Spain took centre stage and it was temporarily put on the back burner while the team switched to developing similar technology for the virus which has killed almost 27,000 people in Spain to date.
Biometric Vox estimates enough voice samples will be collected within the next three months to enable researchers feed an algorithm with sufficient information to provide an identikit of Covid-19 sound patterns with which to identify carriers. His main concern is the methodology used to collect the samples. “We must be able to properly grade the level of infection in donor patients if we are to get the right voice sample in the right category before we develop the program. ”
“We are still analysing data in search of unique markers,” adds Gavilán. “If we get it wrong, the margins of error can be extremely high. On the other hand, we might be able to identify very specific ones. ”
Once the correct information is collected and categorised, Biometric Vox’s biometric engine takes over, evaluating the voice samples with extraordinary accuracy, thanks to its capability of analysing more than 100 morphological and phonetic parameters.
“Imagine how this would ease the pressure on the overloaded health system in Spain”, says Gavilán. “A simple call to a dedicated COVID 19 telephone line would enable doctors to dismiss a patient’s symptoms as unrelated to Covid-19 or request him or her to come in for a blood test to confirm the voice test’s findings. ”
“This way,” adds Gavilán, “not only would we reduce the burden on the health system, but reduce the possibilities of spreading the virus by diagnosing possible carriers remotely or keeping healthy callers away from hospitals where contagion is a risk. ”
“You can’t cheat on your voice,” says Gavilán. “You might be suffering an asthma attack or bad cold and unknowingly convince your family doctor over the phone that you are Covid-19 ridden because the symptoms can be similar. But your voice will reveal your real ailment. ”
Gavilán is aware that the voice test is not the first of its kind. The University of Cambridge has already launched an online platform where you can leave a voice sample along with details of your symptoms which is then harvested and analysed following much the same procedure as Biometric Vox’s.
“The difference in the approach with the University of Cambridge team is with the source of the data, “ says Gavilan. “On the one hand we can get a lot of data quickly or, on the other hand, we can be very sure of the medical categorization of the data. We process only those voice samples from patients certified by doctors to have had the virus and those who haven’t, whereas Cambridge University’s platform is open to volunteer citizens and relies on the patient’s own analysis of their symptoms which they could have easily misinterpreted. ”
Gavilán points out that like Waze, the community driven GPS and navigational app which processes information supplied by drivers, “you can get some right information and also some wrong information inputted into the system without anybody checking whether you’re driving the wrong way up a one way street or over a cliff”.
Pascual Figal is a strong exponent of preventive methods when fighting serious disease and he believes that implementing voice testing once proven effective is the way forward. “Like many countries,” he says, “Spain reacted late to Covid-19 leaving us wide open to mass infections that have killed thousands of patients, dozens of health workers and has particularly targeted our elders. ”
“In circumstances like these,” he adds, “where a nation is unprepared for pandemics of these proportions, where vaccines are unavailable, where health workers combat the disease with ineffectual protective gear, early diagnosis and prevention is key to survival. Now that it seems to be remitting, maybe we will be able to identify the weaknesses in the system and shore it up for future emergencies like this one. ”
“I am convinced voice tests will be universally introduced,” he concludes. “This is not science fiction. If you told people 10 years ago, they would be able to unlock their phones just by looking at the screen, they would have laughed in your face. ”
Gavilán whose 5-year-old company’s main line of business is building identity authentication apps for banks and similar institutions using voice recognition software, says Biometric Vox is carrying out work on the voice test with no financial backing from the state and they aren’t looking for any financial gain either.
“Everyone is chipping in, whether it’s donating homemade face masks or delivering supplies for the elderly free of charge,” he says. “Ours too is a purely altruistic endeavour. ”
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