How Canadian researchers are using data to track the spread of the coronavirus

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Senior consultant of the pulmonary hospital in Hemer, Germany, Dr. Lutz Freitag, points at a slide-projection of the Corona virus during a press conference Tuesday, April 1, 2003. The Corona virus may be responsible for the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, disease. A 72-year-old man who fell ill after returning from the Far East is being treated here, suffering from SARS, the hospital said Tuesday, confirming the fourth case in Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

TORONTO  Canadian researchers are making advances in tracking the trajectory of viral illnesses, like the emergent coronavirus, as they try to stay ahead of any potential threat to Canada.

From global flight patterns to learning the names of individual patients, scientists say they have more ways to monitor infectious diseases than ever.

These insights are drawn from new data-driven technologies, improved communication across public-health agencies and increased transparency in reporting infections.

But as our interconnected world has made it easier to share information, it has also multiplied the opportunities for viruses to spread, said Kamran Khan, a Toronto doctor who specializes in infectious disease.

“On one hand, the world is rapidly changing, where diseases are emerging and spreading faster,” said Khan, a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital.

“On the other hand, we happen to have growing access to data we can use … to generate insights and spread them faster than the diseases spread themselves.”

The newly identified coronavirus has so far sickened close to 600 people in China and killed at least 17. Other cases have been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday that several people in Canada are under observation for signs they may have contracted the pneumonia-like illness, but that the risk to Canadians remains low.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization determined Thursday that it was “too early” to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, but cautioned that “it may yet become one.”

Khan, the founder and CEO of BlueDot, said his medical analytics company has been monitoring the virus since first detecting signs of an outbreak on Dec. 31 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where most of the early cases are concentrated.

Since the rise of commercial air travel, Khan said humans have become the key vectors, or virus carriers, driving the dispersion of diseases around the world.

BlueDot’s AI-powered system analyzes billions of data points, including airline ticket sales and online news reports, to map how viruses spread through the global transportation network and predict regions that are at the highest risk of an outbreak.

Khan said about 80 per cent of travellers from Wuhan to Canada are headed for Toronto and Vancouver, but he noted that there are no non-stop flights from the Chinese city, which means the volume of travel is relatively low.

BlueDot shares such insights with its clients across the private and public sector to keep them posted on the latest developments as an epidemic evolves, so they can co-ordinate their response, said Khan.

However, he admits that every prediction comes with some degree of uncertainty. For example, researchers are still piecing together the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, and how efficiently the virus is transmitted from person to person.

Meanwhile, laboratory networks across the country are working to make sure tests are available wherever cases may crop up, said Yoav Keynan, the scientific lead at the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases.

The coronavirus comes from same family that caused the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed at least 774 people worldwide, including 44 people in Canada.

Since then, Canada has taken steps to improve communication between provincial, federal and global public-health agencies, Keynan said.

“I think there’s a greater degree of knowledge-sharing across jurisdictions that allows us to track epidemics,” said Keynan, an associate professor in University of Manitoba’s medical microbiology department.

“Canadians should be encouraged by how much better the public-health infrastructure is compared to what it was 17 years ago.”

David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who was part of Ontario’s response to the SARS outbreak, said the new coronavirus could serve as a “stress test” for the protocols that have been implemented since.

For example, the virus appears to be highly transmissible in health-care settings, but not outside of them.

That means overcrowded hospitals and emergency rooms could potentially become petri dishes for the infectious disease.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Fisman.

“Our infection-control game is better than it was. But we still have this problem with the physical plant of our hospitals, with our emergency rooms, where people are stuck together cheek-by-jowl, and that creates vulnerability.”

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