China unleashes robots in its battle to control coronavirus

It is a health crisis with global implications. Now China’s government has unleashed a new weapon in its battle to control the coronavirus outbreak: robots.

As the coronavirus death toll reaches 910, Beijing has turned to increasingly experimental technologies to help contain the outbreak.

In China’s southeastern province of Guangdong, an area identified by the World Health Organisation as a coronavirus hotspot, doctors at the city’s Provincial People’s Hospital have been using robots to deliver medicine and food to patients. 

The two-wheeled droids, shaped like a small refrigerator, can navigate the halls of the hospital autonomously, opening and closing doors where necessary to reach infected people in quarantined areas of the hospital. 

The machines are being used to minimise the risks of exposing health workers to the deadly virus, which has now infected more than 40,000 and killed more than 900 people. The toll has already surpassed the 2003’s SARS epidemic and prompted questions about how to reduce the risks of contamination. 

Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics has sent at least 16 of its robots, called “Little Peanut”, to a hospital in the tech-savvy  city of Hangzhou. Health authorities in other cities, such as Beijing and Chengdu are all deploying robots too. 

Other countries have been looking to robots as protective measures too, as coronavirus has extended its footprint far beyond China. In Seattle, where the first case of coronavirus appeared in the US last month, a robot has been deployed to offer more hands on treatment of a 30-year-old patient. 

Following a recent visit to Wuhan, the patient arrived at a Seattle hospital in a stretcher with a plastic covering and has since been seen to by a robot fitted with a stethoscope. It has been used to take measurements such as his heart rate, blood pressure and temperature, while offering a means of communication from a remote location. 

The use of medical robots in this way is understandable. Last week, outrage ensued in China after it emerged that a doctor who blew the whistle on the virus contracted it himself and died.

Meanwhile, some people have been identified as so-called “superspreaders”, those who have an unusually high capacity for infecting others. The difficulty of knowing who might be a “superspreader” makes any situation in which people are exposed a potent one. 

A British patient, who had made recent trips to Singapore and a ski resort in France, passed the virus onto at least seven others before he flew home to Brighton. A GP practice in Brighton closed  on Monday after one of its staff members tested positive for the virus.

The incentives to reduce human contact with patients and deploy alternative modes of treatment are clear, but some harbour scepticism about the use of robots in the fight on coronavirus and their effectiveness.

In New York, a five-foot tall robot built by a firm in Pennsylvania called Promobot, was pulled from Manhattan’s Bryant Park just one hour after it was sent out to detect the virus. 

The robot, which was reportedly deployed to inform people about the disease, stopped passersby to ask them questions including whether or not they “had a fever in the last three days”. It was booted from the park by security after interviewing just three people. 

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