An AI-based programme developed by BioNTech, the German biotech group behind the leading Covid-19 vaccine, and north African AI start-up InstaDeep, identified more than 90% of high-risk variants based on genetic code, including the highly transmissible Omicron strain, on average two months before their designation by the World Health Organization.
The results from the study show that the programme can evaluate the risks of new variants from their spike proteins within minutes, and monitor them as they evolve nearly in real-time. The early warning system can alert health authorities and vaccine developers to the potential risks months before the spread of concerning variants.
Karim Beguir, co-founder and chief executive officer of InstaDeep, claimed that over 10,000 novel variant sequences were discovered every week and human experts could not cope with complex data at this scale. Using global sequence repositories such as Gisaid, the BioNTech/InstaDeep program can scan hundreds of thousands of registered virus variants and analyse each variant’s potential to spread and its immune escape properties. These two metrics are then combined to create a risk score, and a higher score indicates an increased risk of the variant affecting global health.
Emma Hodcroft, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Bern, said the early warning system could prove useful to track future variants but we need to pay attention to the quality of input data.