As a dangerous coronavirus continues to spread outwards from the eastern city of Wuhan, China, experts from other parts of the country are now being called in — literally, using 5G cellular technology — to support growing diagnostic and treatment efforts. Chinese telecom equipment provider ZTE announced today that it has launched a remote 5G diagnosis and treatment system between West China Hospital and the Chengdu Public Health Clinic Center of Sichuan University, resulting in the first 5G remote diagnosis of coronavirus pneumonia. The company will expand the service to Wuhan as the public health crisis continues.

China is one of the earliest mass adopters of 5G cellular technology, which enables dramatically faster communications than prior 4G networks, including low latency, high-resolution video links. For this project, ZTE says that it used a combination of outdoor 5G hardware and indoor 5G base stations to transform a West China Hospital conference room into a remote diagnosis and treatment center.

Experts from West China Hospital, who are already providing video consultations for the Chengdu Public Health Clinic Center, will form a “central node” for Sichuan’s health system, expanding assistance to 27 hospitals with coronavirus patients. After offering service to people in Sichuan province, city, and county, the experts will expand diagnostic and treatment services to patients in Wuhan, which is 1,155 kilometers (718 miles) away.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, 5G’s potential for remote medical services was largely theoretical, as carriers and practitioners spoke of the future prospect of performing remote surgeries or offering diagnoses to patients in far-flung areas. The use of 5G communications to enhance practitioner safety in circumstances such as this, where a virus’ transmission characteristics and other vectors remain unclear, is fairly new but represents a highly practical test of the high-bandwidth wireless technology.

China’s adoption of 5G has outpaced many other countries thanks to a combination of government subsidies and top-down coordination, as well as significant availability of locally produced 5G networking hardware. While domestic companies such as ZTE and Huawei have been restricted or prevented from supplying 5G gear in some countries — a ban that nearly led to ZTE’s collapse in 2018 — their hardware has since enabled Chinese carriers to launch 5G services in somewhere between 30 and 50 cities — no easy feat given the country’s size and population. The country expects to have 5G in every prefecture-level city by the end of this year.


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