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Australian Scientists to make app to predict COVID-19 outbreaks

Image credit: Twitter; @BeatCovid19Now

In an effort to detect possible outbreaks of COVID-19 even prior to any testing, some of Australia’s leading astrophysicists have partnered with public health experts on a mobile app.

Swinburne has partnered with Arq group to launch an online tool to help track the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia.

Swinburne University astrophysics professor, Professor Bailes is working with Swinburne public health professor, Richard Osborne, who previously worked with the World Health Organisation and the Australian Bureau of Statistics on disease-tracking surveys.

The team use supercomputers to analyse captured data in a bid to highlight geographical clusters of symptoms and detect where COVID-19 could be spreading. These supercomputers normally process data from the world’s largest telescopes.

Matthew Bailes, who has put that research on hold, is dedicating his time, and supercomputers, to the project.

“We’re used to catching literally hundreds of gigabytes a second of data from the Square Kilometre Array [radio telescope project],” Professor Bailes said. “And the amount of data we’re talking about for this is a small fraction of that.”

Using early data from a small number of subscribers, the team claimed that the program indicated outbreaks in certain Melbourne suburbs – which matched official government data.

Although the analysis was conducted retrospectively, the researchers believe the results demonstrate that the program should be effective in predicting outbreaks.

These promising early results have prompted the team to launch the ‘BeatCOVID19Now’ app to crowdsource anonymous data from users around the world.

Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said the app would be a useful tool if the Swinburne researchers could get enough people to use it.

Currently, 12,000 people across the world are using a trial version of the app. They log in daily and answer questions about symptoms and risk factors not currently recorded by health authorities.

At the moment users have primarily discovered the website through social media platforms. However, marketing and IT experts have volunteered to help promote the phone app.

The team are optimistic that millions of people globally will use the mobile phone app to report symptoms and risk factors. The responses would be used to try to pre-empt major outbreaks so authorities could intervene early

“We need to know where the next epidemic is going to break out … so we can actually beat COVID-19 by getting in there early and supporting people to be safe,” Professor Osborne said.

While other apps and initiatives require far greater participation, the teams believe they would only need data from a few hundred people in a specific location – for e.g. a small suburb or as large as a city – to produce useful results.

“We’d like to be able to turn back the clock on our survey data and say, ‘You know what? Three days before that outbreak, we saw lots of people with sore throats or runny noses or they lost their sense of taste’,” Professor Bailes said.

He feels that this type of statistics could be correlated with actual outbreaks to predict future ones in an area before they happen.

They are discussing how to best share the data with health authorities and COVID-19 researchers as that would really help governments with response management.

The information will be also made available to authorities globally to enable more efficient deployment of resources, like testing kits, PPE, etc. to those areas.

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