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WHL teams participating in smartphone-based COVID-19 screening trial

The Western Hockey League has partnered with Light AI Inc. for an eight-week trial of the company’s smartphone-based COVID-19 diagnosis technology.

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Light AI CEO and founder Peter Whitehead says about five years ago, his Vancouver-based company started developing an artificial intelligence tool to help reduce the misuse of antibiotics, associated with the misdiagnosis of strep throat. When the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on that trial in 2020, Light AI pivoted to detecting novel coronavirus.

“The idea was to repurpose that algorithm and collect COVID patients, which we’ve been doing for the last six months,” Whitehead said.

“You go to see your doctor, they always look in your throat, but what are they doing that for if they can’t actually predict or tell you what you have from that? Now we can actually bring the AI and the science into showing that, and COVID patients actually have this enormous amount of edema in their mouths.”

Using a smartphone camera, users take a photo of the back of their throats, and the program analyzes the picture for signs of COVID-19. Whitehead says a positive or negative test result is determined in about four seconds, and the user is notified.

Light AI’s trial has been structured so each image sent to the database will be verified by PCR testing to compare for accuracy.

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Whitehead says so far, the database includes information from more than 25,000 results, and now that includes from players and staff in the Western Hockey League.

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The WHL jumped on board for an eight-week trial, with 11 teams voluntarily participating; including the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

“We do a lot of stuff in the big populations around the world like Brazil and the States, to collect lots of data fast,” Whitehead said. “But we don’t have much Canadian content behind our use.

“What a great opportunity to partner with a Canadian sport — one of our biggest sports.”

The Hurricanes’ certified athletic therapist Marty Palechuk says after the league pitched the trial to clubs, he saw participating as a no-brainer.

Players in Lethbridge are doing weekly PCR tests as part of the league’s COVID-19 protocols, and for the last five weeks they’ve also been doing the Light AI smartphone exam on testing days.

“They go and probably in a matter of two to three minutes — that’s them walking out to a mirror and walking back in and giving it back to me — they’re done,” Palechuk said.

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Palechuk says it’s given the players — who are living in dorms near the rink — another unique way to break up their time off the ice, and he was happy to see the club jump on board for one simple reason.

“We want to get the doors open, we want to get crowds back in the bleachers and butts in the seats,” he said.

“If there’s a technology that’s new and up and coming that can help to identify COVID at an early stage — to make it safer for people to get back to what we used to consider the norm — it helps everyone involved.”

Click to play video: Lethbridge Hurricanes players pair up for preseason quarantine

Whitehead says one of the program’s biggest strengths is its high negative predictive value.

“If you have a negative result, there’s only about a 1.5 per cent chance that you actually do have COVID,” the CEO said. “So it’s very reliable at saying you don’t have something.”

Whitehead says Light AI’s positive predictive value is similar to common antigen tests, and the company is beginning the process of seeking approval from Health Canada and the FDA.

“To date we have results that we’re ready to submit to the FDA.

“We’ve actually had our pre-meeting for emergency use, and we’re starting the same process for Health Canada,” Whitehead said. “Our results meet the criteria — sensitivity and specificity — in about the 90s.”

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Whitehead says the goal is eventually look at using the AI program for cardiovascular applications and whole range of other medical diagnoses; and right now, Light AI hopes to become accessible to the general public sooner rather than later.

“We’re never going to try to replace the PCR test, but we would like to be that rule-out test,” he said.

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