How to fight COVID-19 with machine learning

Nine ways machine learning is helping us fight the viral pandemic


Viral pandemics are a serious threat. COVID-19 is not the first, and it won't be the last.

But, like never before, we are collecting and sharing what we learn about the virus. Hundreds of research teams around the world are combining their efforts to collect data and develop solutions.

We want to shine a light on their work and show how machine learning is helping us to:

  • Identify who is most at risk,
  • Diagnose patients,
  • Develop drugs faster,
  • Finding existing drugs that can help
  • Predict the spread of the disease,
  • Understand viruses better,
  • Map where viruses come from, and
  • Predict the next pandemic.

Let’s promote the research to fight this pandemic – and prepare ourselves better for the next one.

1. Identifying who is most at risk from COVID-19

Bulbs, identifying the ones at risk

Machine learning has proven to be invaluable in predicting risks in many spheres.

With medical risk specifically, machine learning is potentially interesting in three key ways.

  • Infection risk: What is the risk of a specific individual or group getting COVID-19?
  • Severity risk: What is the risk of a specific individual or group developing severe COVID-19 symptoms or complications that would require hospitalization or intensive care?
  • Outcome risk: What is the risk that a specific treatment will be ineffective for a certain individual or group, and how likely are they to die?

Machine learning can potentially help predict all three risks. Although it’s still too early for much COVID-19-specific machine learning research to have been conducted and published, early experiments are promising. Furthermore, we can look at how machine learning is used in related areas and imagine how it could help with risk prediction for COVID-19.

1.1 Predicting the risk of infection

Early statistics show that important risk factors that determine how likely an individual is to contract COVID-19 include: 

  • Age,
  • Pre-existing conditions,
  • General hygiene habits,
  • Social habits,
  • Number of human interactions,
  • Frequency of interactions,
  • Location and climate,
  • Socio-economic status.

Risk research for the current pandemic is still in the early stages. For example, DeCapprio et al. have used machine learning to build an initial Vulnerability Index for COVID-19. Prevention measures such as wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing are all likely to influence overall risk as well. As more and better data becomes available and currently ongoing studies produce results, we will likely see more practical applications of machine learning for predicting infection risk.

1.2 Predicting who is at risk of developing a severe case

Once a person or group has become infected, we need to predict the risk of that person or group developing complications or requiring advanced medical care. Many people experience only mild symptoms, while others develop severe lung disease or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is potentially deadly. It’s not possible to treat and closely monitor everyone with mild symptoms, but it’s far better to start treatment early if more severe symptoms are likely to develop.

In the Computers, Materials and Continua journal, researchers published an article showing that machine learning could potentially predict the likelihood of a patient developing ARDS as well as the risk of mortality, just by looking at the initial symptoms. The researchers acknowledge the limitations of this research:

“A clear limitation of this study is the size of the dataset; 53 patients with some incomplete data as well as a limited spectrum of severity.”

But the study lays important groundwork for applying machine learning once more data becomes available. 

1.3 Predicting treatment outcomes

An extension of severity prediction is predicting the treatment’s outcome, which is often literally a matter of predicting life and death. Clearly, it would be useful to know how likely a patient is to survive, given certain symptoms. But on top of this, it’s important to keep in mind that not all patients are treated in the same way. Given a specific patient or group, how effective is a specific treatment likely to be? 

If we can predict the outcomes of specific treatment methods, then doctors can treat patients more effectively. Using machine learning to personalize treatment plans is not specific to COVID-19, and machine learning has previously been used to predict treatment outcomes for patients with epilepsy, as just one example. Researchers have also used machine learning to predict responses to cancer immunotherapy

Because treatment options for COVID-19 are still evolving, it will likely be some time before we see machine learning applied to predicting outcomes for specific treatments. But outcome prediction remains an important part of risk assessment, working hand-in-hand with the infection and severity predictions we discussed above.

2. Screening patients and diagnosing COVID-19 

When a new pandemic hits, diagnosing individuals is challenging. Testing on a large scale is difficult and tests are likely to be expensive, especially in the beginning. Anyone who has any symptoms of COVID-19 is likely to be very concerned that they have contracted the disease, even if the same symptoms are indicative of many other, potentially milder diseases too.

Instead of taking medical samples from each patient and waiting for slow, expensive lab reports to come back, a simpler, faster, and cheaper test (even if it’s less accurate) would be useful in gathering data on a larger scale. This data could be used for further research, as well as for screening and triaging patients

When it comes to using machine learning to help diagnose COVID-19, promising research areas include:

  • Using face scans to identify symptoms, such as whether or not the patient has a fever,
  • Using wearable technology such as smart watches to look for tell-tale patterns in a patient’s resting heart rate,
  • Using machine learning-powered chatbots to screen patients based on self-reported symptoms.

2.1 Screening patients using face scans

Although there are few precise details available, a hospital in Florida was one of the first to attract attention for using machine learning to help respond to COVID-19. Upon entering the hospital, patients are given an automatic face scan, which uses machine learning to detect whether or not they have a fever.

On its own, this data is probably not extremely helpful, but when dealing with hundreds or even thousands of patients, every piece of data is important in helping triage them effectively.

2.2 Using wearable technology to screen for resting heart rate

Apple made headlines when they used their Apple Watch to detect common heart issues with the help of machine learning. But patterns in resting heart rate can be indicative of more specific problems too, and some preliminary research using Fitbit data indicates that changes in resting heart rate can help identify “ILI” or “influenza-like illness” patients. Obviously, this is a long way from diagnosing COVID-19 specifically, but the research is still young. 

Similarly, research from OURA, a sleep and activity tracking ring, uses body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate to try to “identify patterns of onset, progression, and recovery for COVID-19.”

Both studies are still in progress, so no results are available yet.

2.3 Using chatbots for screening and diagnosis 

If doctors spend too much time answering worried patients’ basic questions, they have less time to focus on treating patients who need them more. Many countries have therefore developed “self-triage” systems, where patients complete a questionnaire about their symptoms and medical history before being advised whether to stay home, call a doctor, or visit a hospital.

Many companies, including Microsoft, have released chatbots that help people self-identify their best course of action, given their specific symptoms.

Based on these examples, we can see that machine learning is currently more suited to helping screen COVID-19 patients rather than reliably diagnosing them. Doing real diagnostics is challenging, partly because any diagnostic algorithm also has to be robust to mutations. Pardis Sabeti discusses some related challenges in a Ted Talk

“We also could see that, as the virus was moving between humans, it was mutating. And each of those mutations are so important, because the diagnostics, the vaccines, the therapies that we're using, are all based on that genome sequence – fundamentally, that's what drives it.”

If we do all of this work for a specific virus and then that virus mutates, a lot of work is potentially wasted and has to be redone. If we do find a “holy grail” machine learning algorithm that can quickly and accurately detect COVID-19, it will need to be robust enough to handle mutations.

3. Speeding up drug development

In response to a new pandemic, it’s critical to come up with a vaccine, a reliable diagnostic method, and a drug for treatment – fast. Current methods involve a lot of trial and error, which takes time. It can take months to isolate even one viable vaccine candidate. 

Machine learning can speed up this process significantly without sacrificing quality control. When researchers were trying to find small molecule inhibitors of the Ebola virus, they discovered that training Bayesian ML models with viral pseudotype entry assay and the Ebola virus replication assay data helped speed up the scoring process. (Scoring involves assigning each molecule a value based on how likely it is to help.) This accelerated process quickly identified three potential molecules for testing.

Similarly, researchers working on H7N9 discovered that ML-assisted virtual screening and scoring led to substantial improvements in the accuracy of the scores. Using the random forest algorithm (a classification algorithm made up of lots of decision trees) provided the best results with H7N9.  

In situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, where a virus is spreading rapidly, getting more accurate scores faster is critical to speeding up drug development.

4. Identifying effective existing drugs 

Companies spend a lot of time and money getting new drugs approved. They need to be as sure as they possibly can that these drugs won’t have unexpected, harmful side effects.

This process protects us, but it also slows us down during a pandemic – just when we need a faster response.

One alternative is to repurpose drugs that have already been tested and used to treat other diseases.

But there are thousands of drug candidates, and we don’t have time to test them all – so how do we find the right one?

Machine learning can help us prioritize drug candidates much faster by automatically:

  1. Building knowledge graphs and 
  2. Predicting interactions between drugs and viral proteins.

4.1 Building biomedical knowledge graphs

A lot of what we know about drugs, viruses, and their mechanism is spread across a huge number of research articles. We can use natural language processing (machine learning applied to text) to read and interpret a large number of scientific articles and build biomedical knowledge graphs, which are structured networks that meaningfully connect different entities, such as drugs and proteins).

Specifically, scientists have customized an ML-built knowledge graph and applied it to COVID-19 to find a connection between the virus and the potential drug candidate Baricitinib.

COVID-19 most likely uses the protein ACE2  to enter our lung cells. This process – known as endocytosis – is regulated by AAK1 (another protein). Baricitinib inhibits AAK1, and could potentially also prevent COVID-19’s entry into our lung cells.

Baricitinib inhibiting AAK1 - endocytosis. Coronavirus.

4.2 Predicting drug-target interactions

Scientists are also using machine learning to identify drug candidates by predicting drug-target interactions (DTIs) between the virus’s proteins and existing drugs. 

These interactions are highly complex, so researchers mostly choose neural networks to identify them (1, 2, 3). These networks are trained on large DTI databases to generate lists of particular drug candidates that are most likely to bind to and inhibit the virus’s proteins.

Notably, one research group has developed an end-to-end framework for using neural networks to process knowledge graphs, such as the one used to find Baricitinib. The model is then trained to interpret the knowledge graph and can be used to accurately predict DTIs.

Using this graph-topology learning model, researchers have already found a promising drug candidate, which is currently in clinical trial.

5. Predicting the spread of infectious disease using social networks

In the middle of a pandemic, when we’re trying to develop strategies to actively work against it, we first need to know where we are. We need to answer questions like “How many people are infected?” and “Where are these people?” Unfortunately pandemics – especially those caused by viruses – are difficult and expensive to keep track of.

Usually the government answers these questions, together with the health system. For example, every day (or week) the responsible agency counts and publicizes the number of new patients diagnosed with the disease. But one of the problems here is that there might be a big gap (in time and space) between contracting the disease, developing the first symptoms, and testing positive.

Luckily, we live in a digital world. A farmer who is starting to develop symptoms might live in a small town with no nearby hospitals capable of performing the test. But this same farmer might still be able to access social networks and immediately leave hints about his health and the spread of the disease – hints that only a machine learning model can learn to process at scale.

Mapping social media tweet on a map of the united states

By interpreting the content of public interactions on social media, a machine learning model assesses the likelihood of novel virus contamination. The model might not be able to classify people on an individual level, but it can use all of this data to estimate the spread of the pandemic in real time and to forecast the spread in the upcoming weeks.

The value of this information in decision-making processes in the midst of a rapidly evolving pandemic cannot be overstated.

6. Understanding viruses through proteins

To understand a virus such as COVID-19 is to understand its proteins – whether and how we get sick depends entirely on how these proteins interact with our bodies. But interpreting them is no easy task.

The following use cases provide examples of how machine learning can help improve our understanding of viruses by analyzing their proteins.

6.1 Predicting viral-host protein-protein interactions

Protein-protein interactions (PPIs) between viruses and human body cells determine our body's reactions to pathogens. The virus-host interactome is the entire map of interactions between a virus’s and a host’s proteins. This interactome can be seen as a blueprint of how the virus infects our bodies and replicates in our cells.

Many research groups are working on reducing the vast range of possible interactions. Machine learning models trained with protein data have been successfully used to predict the most likely virus-host PPIs for HIV and H1N1 – greatly reducing the effort required to map the whole virus-host interactome

Understanding how a virus interacts with our bodies is extremely important in the development of new treatments and the discovery of new drugs.

6.2 Predicting protein folding

Unfolded v.s. folded protein
Unfolded v.s. folded Protein

We know that a protein’s structure is linked to its function – and once this structure is understood, we can guess its role in the cell, and scientists can develop drugs that work with the protein’s unique shape. 

But defining a protein’s 3D structure is no easy task – the range of possible structures for a single protein is astronomical: a protein composed of 100 amino acids has 3100 possible conformations.

And there are over one billion known protein sequences, but we have only been able to identify the structures of less than 0.1% of them. 

Using artificial neural networks, research groups have successfully built models that can predict protein structures, finally making it feasible to identify protein structures using computational methods.

7. Figuring out how to attack the virus

Epitopes are clusters of amino acids found on the outside of a virus. Antibodies bind to epitopes, which is how our immune system recognizes and eliminates the virus. So finding and classifying epitopes is essential in determining which part of a molecule to target when we develop vaccines.

Compared to traditional vaccines, which contain inactivated pathogens, epitope-based vaccines are safer – they prevent disease without the risk of potentially deadly side effects. 

Locating the correct epitope can be a time-consuming, expensive process. With a new pandemic, such as COVID-19, locating epitopes faster speeds up the process of developing effective vaccines.

This is where machine learning can help. Support vector machines (SVM), hidden Markov Models, and artificial neural networks (specifically deep learning) have all proven to be faster and more accurate at identifying epitopes than human researchers are.

Antibody with epitope and paratope

8. Identifying hosts in the natural world

A zoonotic pandemic – like the one we are experiencing with the novel coronavirus – is a pandemic caused by an infectious disease that originates in a different species (such as bats) and spreads to humans. Viruses such as Ebola, HIV, or COVID-19 can survive unnoticed in the natural world for a long time, waiting for the next mutation and the next opportunity to infect us. They hide in animals – called reservoir hosts – that are unaffected by the illness. 

Knowing who these reservoir hosts are is vital in fighting a pandemic – once we’ve found them, we can develop strategies to control the spread of the disease and prevent more outbreaks from happening

Viruses and in which type of animal they reside

The classical approach to finding reservoir hosts can take years of research, and there are still many orphan viruses that haven’t been matched to an animal host.

So what can we do? 

Thanks to huge advances in technology, Whole-Genome Sequencing (WGS, the process of determining an organism’s complete DNA sequence) has become cheap and fast. Research has shown that machine learning models can use genome sequencing data together with expert knowledge to pinpoint the species that most likely acted as hosts for the disease

By looking at a small subset of species, we can dramatically speed up the process of finding these pathogens in the wild.

9. Predicting the risk of new pandemics

Accurately predicting whether a strain of influenza is going to make a zoonotic leap (jumping from one species to another) can help doctors and medical professionals anticipate potential pandemics and prepare accordingly

As one example, Influenza A exists primarily in the avian population, but it has the potential to jump to human hosts. Researchers working on Influenza A isolated 67,940 protein sequences from a database. They filtered these sequences so that the dataset included only those influenza strains with complete sequences of 11 influenza proteins.

With machine learning the researchers were then able to identify potentially zoonotic strains of influenza with high levels of accuracy. More work needs to be done to establish prediction models for direct transmission, but knowing which strains of influenza are likely to make a leap is an important first step in preparing for the next pandemic. 


Machine learning is an important tool in fighting the current pandemic. If we take this opportunity to collect data, pool our knowledge, and combine our skills, we can save many lives – both now and in the future.

If you urgently need support to develop a machine learning application in a medical setting (e.g. working towards FDA approval), let’s talk.

Energy Transmission

Anticipating and Preventing Power Grid Failure

Massive power outages cause chaos for the general public, and they cost utility providers roughly $49 billion a year.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem if massive power outages were rare, but outages affecting more than 50,000 people have increased dramatically in recent years. This means utility companies need to find new ways of anticipating and managing these outages.

These days, smart grids are producing massive amounts of data, which means predicting and managing outages is easier than ever. Unlike traditional power grids, which are one-directional (meaning they only transmit power in one direction), smart grids are two-directional. They can capture data from every possible source in the grid at the same time as they’re providing electricity. They collect and monitor data from sources like smart meters, IoT devices, and power generation stations, providing a clear, real-time look at power usage.

Machine learning can use this data to anticipate and prevent massive power outages in the grid. Machine learning helps identify non-obvious patterns in the data that can be a precursor to grid failure, which helps maintenance teams preempt failure.

Balancing the Grid

Balancing the grid — making sure energy supply matches energy demand — is one of the most important jobs a transmission operator has. But renewable energy sources depend heavily on the weather, making them harder to predict.

Transmission operators spend millions each year fixing planning mistakes that lead to producing too much or too little power. In hybrid systems — which rely on both renewable energy sources and fossil fuels to generate electricity — these mistakes have to be corrected at the last minute by buying more energy or compensating power plants for the excess.

Machine learning is the most accurate method available to forecast the output of renewable energy. Advanced methods, like Long Short-Term Neural Networks (LSTMs), can weigh the many factors involved — wind, temperature, sunlight, and humidity forecasts — and make the best predictions. This saves money for operators and preserves resources for power plants.

Preventing Blackouts and Brownouts With Real-time Monitoring and AI Prediction

Power grids have a lot of obstacles to overcome in providing continuous energy to customers. Weather patterns, usage, internal failure, even wildcard incidents like lightning strikes and interference from wild animals can all affect power delivery.

Machine learning is increasingly being used to help predict potential brownout and blackout conditions. By feeding historical data into the AI and running Monte Carlo simulations to predict potential outcomes, grid operators can use machine learning to identify conditions that could lead to grid failure. And they can act accordingly.

Sensors like phase measurement units (PMU) and smart meters can provide usage information in real-time. When combined with both historical and simulation data, AI can help mitigate potential grid failure, using techniques like grid balancing and demand response optimization. Incidents that would otherwise have affected millions of people can be contained to a smaller area and fixed faster for less money.

Differentiate Power System Disturbances from Cyber Attacks

Cyber attacks are increasingly used to target important infrastructure, like shutting down hospitals with Ransomware attacks (when attackers break into the system and lock legitimate users out until a ransom is paid). With utility grids, a cyber attack can have widespread consequences and affect millions of users.

Detecting these attacks is critical.

Developers are using machine learning to differentiate between a fault (a short-circuit, for example) or a disturbance (such as line maintenance) in the grid and an intelligent cyber attack (like a data injection).

Since deception is a huge component of these attacks, the model needs to be trained to look for suspicious activity – things like malicious code or bots – that get left behind after the deception has occurred.

One such method uses feature extraction with Symbolic Dynamic Filtering (an information theory-based pattern recognition tool) to discover causal interactions between the subsystems, without overburdening computer systems. In testing, it accurately detected 99% of cyber attacks, with a true-positive rate of 98% and a false-positive rate of less than 2%. This low false-positive rate is significant because false alarms are one of the biggest concerns in detecting cyber attacks.

Balance Supply and Demand

Utility providers are looking for ways to better predict power usage while maintaining maintaining energy supply at all times. This becomes critical when renewable power sources (like solar or wind) are introduced into the grid.

Because these renewable power sources rely on elements beyond human control (like the weather), utility providers know they can’t always rely on renewables for continuous production. Knowing precisely when demand levels will peak allows utility providers to connect to secondary power sources (like conventionally generated electricity) to bolster the available resources and ensure constant service provision.

More and more utility providers are turning to machine learning for help. We can feed historical data into machine learning algorithms -- like Support Vector Machines (SVM) -- to accurately forecast energy usage and ensure sufficient levels and constant supply.

Detect Power Grid Faults

Current methods for detecting faults in the grid consume a lot of unnecessary time and resources. This creates a situation where power transmission is interrupted and customers are without electricity while faults are first located, then fixed.  

Machine learning can find faults quickly and more accurately helping you minimize service interruption for your customers.. Support Vector Machines (SVM) are combined with Discrete Wavelet Transformation (DWT) to locate faults in the lines using a traveling wave-based location method.

When we apply  DWT (a form of numerical and functional analysis that captures both frequency and location information) to the transient voltage recorded on the transmission line, we can determine the location of the fault by calculating aerial and ground mode voltage wavelets. So far, this method has detected fault inception angles, fault locations, loading levels, and non-linear high-impedance faults for both aerial and underground transmission lines.

Detect Non-Technical Power Grid Losses

In the energy world, “non-technical losses” means energy theft or fraud from the system.

There are two common types of non-technical losses. The first is when a customer uses more energy than the meter reports. The second involves rogue connections stealing energy from paying customers. To pull off this theft or fraud, bad actors can bypass smart meters completely or insert chips into the system that change how meters track energy use. Meter readers can also be bribed to report lower numbers (though thanks to smart meters, this is increasingly hard to do).

Because these non-technical losses cost $96 billion annually, utility providers are turning to machine learning to combat the problem.

We can help utility providers mine historical customer data to discover irregularities that indicate theft or fraud. These can be things like unusual spikes in usage, differences between reported and actual usage, and even evidence of equipment tampering.

Energy Distribution

Better Predict Energy Demand

Accurately predicting customers’ energy needs is critical for any utility provider. To date, we haven’t found an adequate solution for bulk energy storage, which means energy needs to be transmitted and consumed almost as soon as it’s produced.

We're using machine learning to increase the accuracy of these predictions. Historical energy use data, weather forecasts, and the types of businesses or buildings operating on a given day all play a role in determining how much energy is used.

For example, a hot summer day mid-week means more energy usage because office buildings run air conditioning at a high capacity. Weather forecasts and historical data can help identify those patterns in time to prevent rolling blackouts caused by air conditioners in the summer.

Machine Learning finds complicated patterns in the various influencing factors (such as day, time, predicted wind and solar radiation, major sports events, past demand, mean demand, air temperature, moisture and pressure, wind direction, day of the week, etc.) to explain the development of demand. Because machine learning finds more intricate patterns, its predictions are more accurate. This means energy distributors can increase efficiency and decrease costs when they buy energy – without having to make expensive adjustments.

Energy Generation

Predict Turbine Malfunction

Wind is a great renewable energy source, but wind turbine maintenance is notoriously expensive. It accounts for up to 25% of the cost per kWh. And fixing problems after they occur can be even more expensive.

Machine learning can help you get ahead of this problem. The goal is to reduce maintenance costs by catching problems before the turbine malfunctions. This is particularly important when wind farms are located in hard-to-access places, such as the middle of the ocean, which makes repair costs even higher.

Real-time data gathered with Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) can help identify possible malfunctions in the system far enough in advance to prevent failure.

For example, data from sensors found within the turbines – such as oil, grease, and vibration sensors – have been used to train machine learning models to identify precursors to failure, such as low levels of lubricant.

This method can train machine learning models to predict failures up to 60 days in advance.

Consumption / Retail

Accurately Predict Energy Prices

As personal power generation (using solar or wind power) gets easier and cheaper, consumers and businesses are increasingly producing their own power.

Personal power generation allows people to make, consume, and store their own energy. Depending on where they live, they may even be able to sell surplus power back to the local power utility.

Machine learning can help find the best time to produce, store, or sell this energy. Ideally, energy should be consumed or stored when prices are low and sold back to the grid when prices are high.

By looking at historical data, usage trends, and weather forecasts, machine learning models have made accurate predictions on an hourly basis. People with personal and business energy generation systems can use these predictions to make strategic decisions about whether to use, store, or sell their energy.

For example, Adaptive Neural Fuzzy Inference System (ANFIS) has been used to predict short-term wind patterns for wind power generation. This allows producers to maximize energy production and sell it when energy prices are at their peak.

Reduce Customer Churn

In open energy markets, where customers have a choice of utility providers, understanding which customers are going to churn out can be critical. Churn rates, which is the percentage of customers who stop using your service in a year, can be as high as 25%. Being able to predict churn and stay ahead of it is essential to survival.

Machine learning is helping utility owners predict when a customer is getting ready to churn out. By using techniques such as Cross-industry Standard Process for Data Mining (CRISP-DM), AdaBoost, and Support Vector Machines, as well as historical usage data, utility providers can identify key indicators of whether or not a customer is going to churn. These indicators include things like customer satisfaction, employment status, energy consumption, home ownership or rental status. A change in any of these can indicate a customer is getting ready to terminate their service.

When these indicators are identified far enough in advance, it’s possible to avoid churn by working with customers to solve any problems they’re experiencing.

Energy Trading

Predict Energy Prices

Just like natural gas and oil, wholesale energy is a market commodity. So naturally it's important for traders to be aware of market fluctuations and pricing when it comes to buying and selling energy.

To help make sense of the massive amounts of data used to make trading decisions, traders are increasingly turning to machine learning.

A mix of statistical analysis and machine learning can help commodity traders make better predictions. Classical statistical analysis techniques like time series analysis, Seasonal Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average (SARIMA), and regression models are used to deal with the data. And machine learning makes connections between the various data points.

What’s more, machine learning trains itself to make increasingly accurate predictions using the constant flow of real-time data.

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