Four out of five Zika-infected individuals are asymptomatic. Nevertheless, Zika has become a major global health crisis because of the consequences in unborn babies. It is now well-established that the Zika virus significantly increases the risk of microcephaly in children born to Zika-infected mothers. However, because this link could not be immediately drawn, the significance of the Zika outbreak was initially underestimated. The Zika epidemic irreversibly damaged thousands of lives. Microsoft’s Project Premonition hopes to prevent diseases from reaching such proportions in the future.
Project Premonition involves a three-pronged approach to find, collect and detect. To find and collect the disease vectors, Microsoft will use drones that apply for advances in robotics, genomics, and cloud computing. These drones will be able to identify mosquito hotspots, which have historically been difficult and labor-intensive to identify due to their erratic nature. Before Microsoft’s Project Premonition, mosquito traps were unable to differentiate between mosquitoes and other insects; it required the expertise of human entomologists.
Now, there are traps equipped with smart cells that can identify mosquitoes based on their wing movements. These traps have already been successfully piloted in Texas. Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County Public Health’s mosquito control division stated, “[Project Premonition’s traps were] really 1,000 times better” than what was previously used. The traps do much more than removing the need for meticulous study by a trained specialist; they also collect a wealth of environmental data that can be used to establish patterns. In addition, machine learning enables Microsoft’s Project Premonition traps to adapt and become more efficient as they collect the additional specimen.
Once the potential vectors have been captured, their genetic material can be converted into actionable data. Drawing from information in public sequence databases, Microsoft’s Project Premonition metagenomics pipeline would identify organisms, including bacteria and viruses, that contributed to the sample’s genetic material. The company plans to make the pipeline publicly available so that others can advance the technology.
Though Bill Gates is no longer at the helm, the company is showing a similar commitment to improving global health. Microsoft’s Project Premonition has already made incredible progress. If successful, it would provide far more than an ounce of prevention to outweigh the pound of cure another outbreak would require.
– Rebecca Yu