Hong Kong CNN Business  — 

China has spent decades nurturing its tech sector. Now, faced with a massive public health crisis, Beijing is pushing its tech companies to join the fight against the novel coronavirus.

The country’s tech giants have responded to the outbreak by deploying autonomous vehicles to bring supplies to medical workers, fitting drones with thermal cameras to improve detection of the virus and lending their computing power to help develop a vaccine.

It’s not clear how much tech can help control the virus, which has now infected at least 79,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,600, mostly in mainland China. And some of the efforts put forth so far are limited in size and scope.

But Beijing has made clear that fighting the virus is a national priority that requires collective action.

The government has long stressed technological innovation as an important pillar of growth, and Beijing has spent billions of dollars on subsidies, loans and bonds designed to spur advancements in artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and other areas as it works to develop a tech sector that can compete with Silicon Valley.

“The fight against the epidemic cannot be achieved without the support of science and technology,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said earlier this month, according to state news agency Xinhua.

He added that China should ramp up clinical research for vaccines and antiviral drugs, as well as expand online shopping options for the tens of millions of people who are staying indoors to prevent the disease’s spread.

The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology on Thursday called on the tech sector for help, suggesting that robots, temperature screening machines and devices that can help reduce human contact should be deployed.

A worker taking pedestrians' body temperatures at a roadblock in Guangzhou this month.

China’s technological rise

China’s efforts to create its own Silicon Valley date to the 1980s, when authorities began designating parts of the country as “high-tech development zones” focused on consumer electronics and biotech, among other fields. Those 168 zones reported more than 33 trillion yuan ($4.7 trillion) in revenue in 2018, according to official statistics.

Tech is also the linchpin of Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” initiative, a plan to shift the economy from manufacturing to high-tech sectors. The mandate entailed investing billions of dollars of government funding into areas such as wireless communications, microchips and robotics.

The focus on tech has worked. China was home to nine of the world’s 20 most valuable tech companies in 2018 — a big leap over the two it claimed five years earlier, according to a report by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

As China now fights the coronavirus, technology won’t be the “dominating factor” that stops the outbreak, according to Danny Mu, a Beijing-based analyst of emerging technologies at Forrester.

But he said the sector has its uses, including offering digital services like food delivery and mobile payments that help people “better face the epidemic.”

Researching cures and eliminating human contact

This month, Tencent (TCEHY) opened up its super-computing facilities — which include machines that can run calculations much faster than an ordinary PC — to help researchers racing to find a cure. The Beijing Life Sciences Institute and Tsinghua University are among the participants.

And Didi, China’s biggest ride-hailing provider, has teamed up with medical and aid organizations to allow workers who need to perform tasks related to data analysis, online simulation or logistical support to use Didi’s servers for free.

Others are deploying robots to eliminate human-to-human contact.