media release

SFU, Providence Health Care develop AI tool for quicker COVID-19 diagnosis

June 02, 2020

Fred Popowich; scientific director, SFU Big Data Initiative, 604.803.7319,

Soyean Kim; director, Digital Products, Providence Health Care, 604.690.4324,

Shradhha Sharma; University Communications and Marketing, 604.202.2504,

Elaine Yong; senior communications specialist—media relations, Providence Health Care, 604.837.6003,


Simon Fraser University researchers and Providence Health Care (PHC) are collaborating on a new artificial intelligence tool that will help diagnose COVID-19 quicker.

PHC leveraged SFU researchers’ expertise to validate a deep learning Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool to expedite the time healthcare professionals spend distinguishing between COVID-19 pneumonia and non-COVID-19 cases.

The tool, currently in the validation phase at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada, enables a clinician to feed a patient’s chest x-ray image into a computer, run a bio-image detection analysis and determine a positive pneumonia case that is consistent with COVID-19.

The diagnostic tool is designed to help doctors and other frontline healthcare workers make quick decisions as they grapple with an increased number of patients. While not a standalone clinical diagnosis solution, it can be used to rapidly assist confirmation of a clinician's suspicions in concert with other tools, along with other tools, such as Computed Tomography (CT) scans.

The AI system can also assist resident and less experienced doctors look over a data set and make a quick diagnosis before a senior doctor can step in, says Yağız Aksoy, an assistant professor in the School of Computing Science’s GrUVi Lab.

Aksoy, and MAGPIE Group researcher Vijay Naidu, a mathematician, helped refine the machine learning system using X-ray images of both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients to identify the unique characteristics found in the virus.

“Instead of doctors checking each X-ray image individually, this system is trained to use algorithms and data to identify it for them,” explains Aksoy.

Naidu also shared his expertise in bio-sequence analysis to create a database of COVID-19 biological signatures, or unique identifiers, to zero in on those found in positive patients.

He says the technique can also be used in the detection and classification of other types of chest x-ray pneumonia images, such as bacterial, fungal and other viral pneumonia.

“Connecting partners to diverse SFU experts is core to SFU’s Big Data Initiative,” says Fred Popowich, scientific director, SFU's Big Data Initiative, which connected the teams. “Our goal is to advance COVID-19 response efforts and make this knowledge accessible to clinicians around the world.”

“This multidisciplinary collaboration provided much needed validation of our models and expedited our development process, thereby directly assisting Providence Health Care’s efforts to plan for the urgent and ever evolving nature of the COVID-19 crisis,” says Soyean Kim, director, Digital Products, Providence Health Care.

“SFU's researchers, innovators and experts are on the frontline of the COVID-19 response,” says Joy Johnson, vice-president, research and international. “We are well positioned to quickly respond to a critical problem like this by tapping into our extensive research networks, sharing resources and collaborating on impactful solutions that benefit our communities.”


Once approved, the tool will be made available at no cost with the U.N.’s support. An ongoing multinational collaboration will further improve efficacy and provide additional authentication.

The beta version of the tool – still in an early testing phase – has already been uploaded to the United Nations Global Platform and is whitelisted in the AWS Machine Learning Marketplace, among others.

The tool will undergo further evaluation and training.


About Simon Fraser University:

As Canada’s engaged university, SFU works with communities, organizations and partners to create, share and embrace knowledge that improves life and generates real change. We deliver a world-class education with lifelong value that shapes change-makers, visionaries and problem-solvers. We connect research and innovation to entrepreneurship and industry to deliver sustainable, relevant solutions to today’s problems. With campuses in British Columbia’s three largest cities – Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey – SFU has eight faculties that deliver 193 undergraduate degree programs and 127 graduate degree programs to more than 35,000 students. The university now boasts more than 160,000 alumni residing in 143 countries.