Alibaba pitches coronavirus diagnostic tool to Europe in China outreach move

Alibaba said it presented its machine-learning software for chest scans to healthcare representatives in France and Italy.
Alibaba said it presented its machine-learning software for chest scans to healthcare representatives in France and Italy.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - Alibaba Group is offering Europe's embattled health systems a cloud-based coronavirus diagnostic tool it says it has successfully tried in China's hospitals.

The move by billionaire co-founder Jack Ma's technology giant comes amid a bigger push by China to promote its efforts to contain the pandemic that started in the city of Wuhan and was left undiagnosed for a few weeks before spreading to the rest of the world.

The company said it presented its machine-learning software for chest scans to healthcare representatives in France and Italy.

Alibaba's efforts come as China and its top technology companies step up their outreach in Europe, showcasing virus-diagnosis and analysis tools. Telecoms giant Huawei Technologies said it offered Italian hospitals video conferencing and wireless connectivity capabilities. Internet search engine Baidu is proposing an algorithm to analyse the virus's biological structure.

As Europe becomes the epicentre of the virus, Beijing's diplomatic and material efforts in the fight against the outbreak coincide with what's seen as an attempt by the Trump administration to distance itself from the region.

"Alibaba and other private companies are enrolled by China's government in its long-term plan: show their ability to be an ally for Europe, and pass the message that the US is failing to help them," said Dr Antoine Bondaz, a researcher at the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris.

France wouldn't refuse the help being offered, and that if Alibaba wanted to contribute to research and diagnosis it could be allowed to, a French government official said, declining to be named in line with internal policy.

The health ministry said it hasn't received a proposal from Alibaba, adding that the "techniques have not been validated". The diagnostic tool is also seen as costly and time-consuming.

Alibaba, which has been expanding its European footprint in the payments and retail sectors, claims its software, developed at its research centre called Damo, can diagnose the Covid-19 virus quickly and with 96 per cent accuracy. The company says it has tested the product in China on 5,000 patients.

 
 
 
 

Artificial intelligence-powered scans have been increasingly used in hospitals, and companies like Alphabet Inc's Google have developed data-learning solutions to help doctors diagnose diseases like cancer.

In Europe, no private company or research lab has come forward with a broad diagnosis solution so far. Atos SE, the big data and cybersecurity company, said it has offered computing capabilities to reproduce and model the 3D atomic structure of the virus to labs in Spain and France.

In the United States, Alphabet Inc's healthcare unit Verily ran tests for about 20 people on its first day screening the virus on Tuesday (March 17) in California. Verily is a questionnaire-based diagnostic tool. Potential patients answer questions to determine if they need testing and are then redirected when required to Verily's two testing sites where another sample is taken, Bloomberg reported.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Huawei said it donated protective suits and 200,000 masks to hospitals in Milan. Mr Thomas Miao, chief executive officer of Huawei Italy, said the company also offered equipment for wireless networks to about 10 temporary hospitals and said it's working with partners to create a video-conferencing platform for a real-time connection between hospitals.

Alibaba said it shipped two million masks to the continent through Belgium last Friday.

On Wednesday, the company published a "digital handbook" to "share their learnings from screening, to diagnosis and treatment of patients who contracted Covid-19, as well as sanitation and facility management". It also proposed a cloud-based information sharing platform for doctors.