There is no doubt that you’ve heard about the 2019 novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) by now. Talk about this virus has spread across the world almost instantly. What are the potential effects of this rapid spread of information, and has it led to a more positive outcome?

Background

Before COVID-19, there were six variants known to infect humans. Four of these are known to cause mild common cold-like symptoms and the other two, the most severe forms, are known as: Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory syndrome (MERS).  The origins of the virus stems from livestock animals, in particular bats. Research suggests humans first picked up the virus in a meat market. [1] This was supported by the emergence of the SARS outbreak in 2003, an epidemic which affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8000 deaths.[2]

Following this outbreak of this new strain of Coronavirus, similarities have been identified between COVID-19 and other strains such as MERS and SARS. [3] Both strains are known to infect both the upper and lower airways and cause severe respiratory illness and other complications in humans.[4]

International impact of COVID-19

As it stands the current impact this outbreak has had is far reaching. The surveillance spread of the disease and number of deaths is being closely monitored by organisations such as WHO. The latest data reported on the 25th February 2020 [5] :

  • Globally, 80,134 cases have been confirmed
  • Within China 77,658 cases and 2,665 deaths have been identified (this includes 64,786 cases from Hubei province)
  • In Europe 278 cases and 7 deaths have been reported (229 cases are located in Italy, the highest number of cases outside Asia)

As this outbreak is ongoing, the number of cases, infected and dead, is expected to increase. This brings the death toll from COVID-19, to more than double that of the 2003 SARS epidemic.  If this outbreak continues to spread, the consequences are extremely severe and there is no telling of how harmful it could become. A leading epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong has warned that COVID-19 could infect 60% of the globe if left untreated.

While this outbreak has sparked major talks between countries and governments, the WHO has enforced several different actions in order to combat the spread of this disease. Firstly, the WHO has praised the actions taken by China in relation to the disease and has proposed temporary recommendations and guidelines to China and the global community. 

In response to the declaration made by the WHO that COVID-19 is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the medical officers in the UK have decided to raise the risk to the public from low to moderate. The risk to individuals within the UK, however, remains low.[6] Detailing the actions taken in response to the outbreak so far, the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England have stated that the UK has:[7]

  • Introduced advanced monitoring at airports with direct flights from China
  • Issued clinical guidance for detection and diagnosis of COVID-19, as well as guidance on infection prevention and control
  • Established a team of health experts at Heathrow Airport to support anyone travelling in from China who feels unwell

The UK have also developed a prototype laboratory test for this new disease. It is advised that healthcare professionals who have been in contact by patients with symptoms following travel from the city of Wuhan (the heart of the outbreak in China) have been advised to submit samples to Public Health England (PHE) for testing.

Social media as a new source of information

The spread of misinformation has been recognised as a problem to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Since the outbreak, various organisations and commentators have raised concerns about the spread of misinformation relating to COVID-19. [8] First and foremost, much of the misinformation has been based on areas such as false cures (for example drinking bleach), the spread of the disease (in that it has been regarded as a bio-weapon) and speculation regarding the origins of the virus. [9] The scale of the problem has resulted in the WHO having to intervene and label this as an “infodemic”; implying an over-abundance of information that makes it extremely difficult for people to find trustworthy and reliable guidance.[10]

Worryingly, people are more likely to spread false news on social media than true news.[11] For example, one such claim shared 16,000 times on Facebook advises users in the Philippines to “keep your throat moist”, “avoid spicy food” and “load up on vitamin C” in order to prevent disease. In response to the issues and conspiracy theories that have flourished on social media platforms, WHO has stated that its technical communication and social media teams have intervened and are working towards tracking and responding to the myths and rumours. The team members are working tirelessly towards identifying the most prevalent rumours and those which can potentially harm the public’s health, for example false prevention guidance and cures. To combat this the teams are using evidence-based information to refute such claims. All information is available on WHO social media channels across all platforms.

Social media platforms such as Facebook have said that it will use existing fact-checkers to review and expose such misinformation.[12] This has also sparked a response from Twitter launching a prompt campaign which encourages users to visit official channels (such as WHO and Department of Health and Social Care) for information when searching for information on the Coronavirus.

Aside from the spread of misinformation, social media could also have positive impact on this outbreak. For instance, several preventative methods have been suggested, such as the launch of a health information campaign from PHE (Public Health England), to advise people in the UK to slow the spread of the COVID-19. The public was advised to:

  • Always carry tissues and use them to catch coughs and sneezes, and bin tissue immediately
  • Wash hands with soap and water, or use a sanitiser gel, to kill germs
  • Avoid the consumption of raw or under-cooked animal products

A constant channel of communication and news can also alert those who have been to infected areas recently who may have otherwise been unaware. Regarding the recent outbreak in northern Italy: Britons who have been to this region recently, especially during school half-term, were advised to self-isolate to avoid potential outbreaks in the UK. However, some are complaining that the response to the spike of cases in Italy was too slow, claiming that Italy was not “on the list” of affected places when calling the NHS 111 helpline 2 days after the spike. [13]

A potential avenue for Artificial Intelligence (AI)

As far as current research and technological applications being used in infectious diseases, it can be quite difficult for governments and public health professionals to gather information quickly and coordinate a response. The use of artificial intelligence has sparked significant interest in that the technology can automatically mine through news reports and online content around the world, with the hope that AI might help to better control future disease outbreaks.

For the case of COVID-19, a Canadian start-up BlueDot has used AI to track the coronavirus and raised the alarm days before the outbreak. The start-up has developed an algorithm that can filter through hundreds of thousands of new stories a day alongside traffic information in order to detect and monitor the spread of the infectious disease. [14] The actions from the algorithm resulted in the spread of alert messages to clients on December 31, about the new coronavirus outbreak, a few days before major public health authorities made any official statements.

In summary, enormous progress has been made in responding to public health emergencies of communicable disease and coordinating action internationally due to the rapid spread of information and analysis of data. While the propagation of misinformation could have significant consequences, the ability AI has displayed in detecting outbreaks earlier may allow for pre-emptive actions to be taken, which in turn could reduce the impact of future outbreaks.

By Rubhaan Malik - Healthcare Analyst, Epidemiology & Greg Higgins - Sr Healthcare Analyst, Epidemiology.


[1] Hu B et al. (2015). ‘Bat origin of human coronaviruses’, Virol J, 12 (1), 221

[2] World Health Organisation, “SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), accessed on 18th February 2020

[3] World Health Organisation, ‘Coronavirus’, accessed 18 February 2020. (https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus)

[4] ibid; and Haitao Guo et al, ‘Snakes Could be the Original Source of the New Coronavirus Outbreak in China’, The Conversation, 17 February 2020.

[5]ECDC https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases.

[6] Department of Health and Social Care, ‘Statement from the Four UK Chief Medical Officers on Novel Coronavirus’, 17 February January 2020.

[7] Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England, ‘Coronavirus: Latest Information and Advice’,

[8] BBC Trending, ‘China Coronavirus: Misinformation Spreads Online About Origin and Scale’, 17 February 2020

[9] 1 Josh Taylor, ‘Bat Soup, Dodgy Cures and ‘Diseasology’: the Spread of Coronavirus Misinformation’, Guardian, 17 February 2020

[10] World Health Organisation, Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV): Situation Report 13, 2 February 2020, p 2.

[11] Vosoughi S et al. (2018). ‘The spread of true and false news online.’, Science, 359 (6380), 1146-51.

[12] Kang-Xing Jin, ‘Keeping People Safe and Informed About the Coronavirus’, Facebook Newsroom, 30 January 2020.

[13] BBC News. ‘New coronavirus advice for Britons back from Italy.’ Accessed on 25 February 2020.

[14] Economic Times. “Canadian start-up used AI to track Coronavirus” Accessed on 21 February 2020