The Belgian initiative icovid, which supports radiologists in the assessment of CT images of the lungs of COVID-19 patients, has grown into a multicentre European project, co-funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme. Icovid was set up in March by UZ Brussel, KU Leuven, icometrix and ETRO, an imec research group of VUB.
Professor Jef Vandemeulebroucke of ETRO, said: “What started as a local project is now being rolled out in 800 hospitals in Europe and supported by excellent research centres all over Europe. With icolung, we can detect COVID-19 patients at an early stage and quantify the extent of lung lesions. Meanwhile, we are further improving the AI software to identify lung damage as COVID-19 even more quickly, and to determine the further care path of the patient faster and better through prognostic models.”
The icovid project was launched in March 2020 as a Belgian pro bono initiative. icometrix, which specialises in AI solutions for medical images, partnered with UZ Brussel, KU Leuven, VUB and imec to investigate how to deploy lung scans in the COVID pandemic and what AI software would be needed to do so. The AI tool icolung was born.
Prof Johan de Mey, VUB-UZ Brussel, said: “At the time, there was insufficient testing capacity to quickly test all patients. With icolung, we wanted to use lung scans as a triage tool. By using CT and with the help of the AI analyses, we were able to trace patients with suspicious lung lesions and have them tested as a priority. During the busiest periods, everyone who entered the UZ Brussel as a patient was scanned, also as a means of preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in the hospital.”
Icolung was certified in April and is currently being used by over 75 hospitals worldwide and has analysed over 35,000 lung CT scans. The icovid project now builds on the development of icolung and is committed to scaling up, thanks to the commitment of renowned research institutes such as King’s College London, Universitätsklinikum Heidelberg, University of Oxford, Maastricht University and the University and Centre Hospitalier Universitaire of Liège.
The partners will also collaborate with The Medical Cloud Company to incorporate other clinical information into the models in addition to CT images. icovid receives funding for this from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Thanks to this financial support, icolung can be offered free of charge to hospitals across Europe. While vaccination will eventually normalise daily life, the virus will still circulate and other coronaviruses may emerge. In local outbreaks, it will be important to identify COVID-19 patients early.
Detection of Chronic COVID Syndrome
Icovid will continue to respond to the rapidly evolving needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, it is estimated that about two percent of COVID-19 patients have symptoms lasting longer than three months, called Long COVID or Chronic COVID Syndrome (CCS). With the improved software, the consortium will also better predict the long-term effects of COVID-19, which are today still largely unknown. The ability to identify patients who may develop CCS opens up possibilities for hospitals to better adapt care and share the burden.
Dr Dirk Smeets, icovid Project Coordinator and CTO at icometrix, added: “This project allows us to further demonstrate that AI, and medical technology in general, can add value to clinical decisions and save costs. I strongly believe that icolung will benefit from the advice, clinical expertise, and critical evaluation of the renowned academic centres in our consortium.”
Prof Dr Fergus Gleeson, Chief Medical Officer for the National Consortium of Intelligent Medical Imaging, Head of academic radiology at Oxford University and president of the European Society of Thoracic Imaging, said: “A wide adoption of AI-based software for the analysis of chest CT images, like icolung, will help the fight against a pandemic that, unfortunately, we will have to endure for quite some time. These large-scale research collaborations with a variety of expertise are critical to responding to the evolving needs during this pandemic.”