Ideas

The Case For Letting Algorithms Run The Vaccine Rollouts

Belgium's vaccination campaign is a prime example, computer scientist Hugues Bersini argues, of how technology can not only improve efficiency, but also, in some cases, make things more fair.

Patients waiting after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
Hugues Bersini*

-OpEd-

Even the most technophobic of our fellow citizens could acknowledge the three essential virtues of algorithms:

First, there is no better way to manipulate numbers and optimize quantities.

Second, their time-saving advantage is undeniable (take, for example, Waze, Google, banking applications, etc.).

And third, they are rigid and difficult to hijack, making fraud much harder (planes are always hijacked with a Kalashnikov — not by writing lines of code).

Since the COVID crisis began, the countries that have made the best use of software devices for tracing contacts, organizing quarantines and testing are among those which register the lowest number of casualties — specifically the Far East countries, including the least liberticidal among them.

It's easy to understand why, considering the first two virtues listed just above. This crisis is full of numbers to be minimized (the reproduction rate, the number of serious cases and contacts) or to be maximized (social distance, the number of tests...) and a race against the virus and its variants is still underway. As the French President Emmanuel Macron said, virus is the master of time.

A good algorithm would allowed last doses to be given to the people who needed them the most.

I have already criticized the use that has been made of these software devices and the extraordinary flaws revealed, during the crisis, when public services exploited these same devices. There was the failure of the Bluetooth contact tracing app and the initial difficulties to organize the tests. Later, and despite the fact we've been in this crisis for a year, there were the unacceptable hiccups when people booked vaccination appointments, toward the start of the campaign.

We saw young people, in good health and teleworking, lifting their shirt sleeves to get the vaccine, instead of the at-risk elderly people who need it most. And what a peculiar idea Belgium had, unlike many European countries, to send vaccination invitations without first allowing people to state whether they wanted to be vaccinated or not ... The result? An unbearable number of unanswered invitations and, today, having to compensate with a flawed software called QVAX.

The reality, though, is that the vaccination campaign actually constitutes the perfect example of a crisis situation where algorithmic assistance is vital. For a successful rollout, it is necessary to make calculations by combining at least three different quantities: the available vaccine doses, which vary all the time; the cohorts of patients who need to be vaccinated; and the capacity of vaccination centers.

The Gale-Shapley algorithms are used, for example, in organ transplants — Photo: KC Wearable

We need to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible while also preventing fraud and preferential treatments — something that is inevitable as long as people are in charge and that, in some countries, has brought down ministers and other influential figures.

In Belgium, some of these priority reversals were justified by the so-called last doses that need to be administered promptly. But this is not a good reason because, again, using a good algorithm would have allowed these last doses to be given to the people who needed them the most, while respecting the priority order, instead of favoring friends.

A perfect match

Computer scientists are familiar with the Gale-Shapley algorithms: They are used, for example, in organ transplants or in France's Parcoursup, an automated system for university enrollments, and what they're able to achieve is a perfect association between several essential elements — in this case, patients and vaccines, even though that latter is subject to shortages.

The algorithm, or at least the logic behind it, should be known to all.

These algorithms start by sequencing the first elements in relation to the second. This way, each patient can arrange his or her potential vaccines and vaccination centers in order of preference. At the same time, each available vaccine can do the same for the patients (with the centers able to sort out the patients by geographical proximity).

The algorithm achieves the perfect association, for example, matching the high-priority patients with the adequate vaccines and directing these patients to easily accessible locations. Also, any type of fraud becomes almost impossible with the algorithm, as your phone informs you, and no one else, about the and time and place of the vaccination appointment.

The algorithm, or at least the logic behind it, should be known to all; better still, it should be decided by all, in particular when it comes to the priority levels we grant patients.

Common sense has already made it possible to give priority to the elderly and/or people suffering from comorbidities. But when it is time to decide which job is more essential than another in the eyes of the virus, that's a whole different story!

We fear a rough and tumble kind of situation. This is where the citizens' assembly that President Macron wanted to create in France could have really made all the difference. Once these citizens reached an agreement, priorities would have been set in algorithmic stone, clearly and transparently. And nothing and no one could have made it diverge from that.

Finally, we shouldn't let privacy concerns stand in the way of this process: A lot was said about that in the newspapers, especially for people with comorbidities who suddenly became more than reluctant to expose their obesity or hypertension to the public. It is easy to see the absurdity of it when lives are at stake.


*Hugues Bersini is a computer science professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

**This article was translated with permission from the author.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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