Big Data’s Latest On Tracking The Spread of COVID-19

12:07 minutes

A non-binary femme using their phone.
Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection/Zackary Drucker

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

In an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some European countries are collecting information on the movements of residents using cell phone data. This helps determine who is following stay-at-home orders, and who isn’t. Facebook and Google want to use their data about user movements to do the same. But some say this is a big breach of privacy.

Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to discuss this story and more of the latest COVID-19 news. She also explains what’s new with development of a coronavirus vaccine, and how self-driving vehicles are playing a part in contact-less delivery.

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about some of the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our health care system. Can you get every daycare, too, during extraordinary times? Just a note, we won’t be taking calls during this pre-recorded hour.

But, first, with most of us in social isolation, self-driving cars are taking to the roads in some communities. Here to update us on that story and more of the latest coronavirus news is Amy Nordrum, editor of the IEEE Spectrum in New York City. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So give us what’s the latest on the race for a vaccine.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, well, there are more than two dozen companies now around the world working on coronavirus vaccines. Trials have now begun in some areas. Other companies are expected to start trials soon. They’re taking a lot of different approaches to these vaccines.

So some are doing a more traditional method where they’re taking a weakened snippet or a version of the virus and injecting that into people to be able to build up an immunity to it. Others are taking a newer approach. So there’s a company called Moderna that’s created a synthetic version of messenger RNA that persuades the body to produce proteins similar to those that the virus uses to attach and invade a human cell so that people can generate an immune response from that.

But all of these are still in the pretty early stages. A vaccine is, most likely, still a year or more away. And work is just beginning across the board.

IRA FLATOW: So is there cooperation between countries now to develop this?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, there has been some cooperation. So Chinese scientists did share this genetic sequence of the virus pretty early on, which allowed all of this work to begin and kick off. There’s something called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation that has made a global call for raising $2 billion that it would put into vaccine development for eight candidates in particular.

But most of the work seems to be still happening at the government level. China has done a lot with its government-employed scientists in the military and in the civilian scientific organizations to start work on this. And then at the corporate level, here in the US, seems to really be driving developments in that area.

IRA FLATOW: The corporate level.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so companies like Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Moderna, they’re all working on these projects. And they’re partnering with federal organizations and certainly trying to do the work faster than they would traditionally and get approvals quicker for this kind of work, but they seem to kind of be driving the bus.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about what’s going on with these antibody tests that we keep hearing about. Give us a little explanation of what’s going on there and the status.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, yeah, the hope is that, in addition to developing vaccines, we’d also be able to develop, potentially, treatments for the coronavirus in the short term, so using antibodies that people develop that help them recover from the virus when they get it, so looking at these antibodies that have been recovered from people who have had coronavirus and gotten better to see if there’s possible ways to inject those into people that have the virus to help them recover faster.

So there’s a number of efforts on this front. And, again, different companies are taking different approaches. Eli Lilly is working on an antibody treatment. It takes a blood sample from a patient and analyzes it for antibodies. It has hundreds of possible candidates that could help against the virus. And it’s trying to kind of figure out which ones to focus on for the coronavirus.

A company called Regeneron injects a version of the virus into mice and then uses those mice to produce antibodies that might be then safe to transfer into humans. And it did do this pretty successfully for the Ebola outbreak.

And then there’s a company in Japan called Takeda that’s taking plasma from coronavirus patients and trying to isolate antibodies from that to determine which ones might help them recover faster. Most of these are still, though, in preclinical or phase I trials. And results would still be months or, perhaps, a year away.

IRA FLATOW: You know, getting back to the tests, we have seen stories about these five-minute tests or very fast tests. And, yet, there is now some question about how accurate they are.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that would be really great if people didn’t have to wait days for results from these tests, which is, typically, the situation now. Most hospitals rely in the US on a version of the test that the CDC had developed early during the outbreak. And there’s lots of biotech firms working on these kind of quick, fast turnaround tests. But they’re not thought to be as accurate as the traditional tests that are done that do take longer. So it would be great, but I don’t think that it’s quite there yet.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about the CDC putting out new recommendations for wearing masks. They want everybody to wear masks in public. And they recommended everyone, as I say. Tell me the details about this. How about the homemade masks? Are they comparable to medical grade? Are we being told to make those too if we can’t get the medical-grade ones?

AMY NORDRUM: Right, well, it is important to still save those medical-grade masks for doctors and nurses. And the homemade masks are probably not as effective as surgical masks or N95 respirators certainly, but there is a feeling that it’s better than nothing. And that’s why the CDC is recommending it. It may help control the spread of the virus, stopping you from spreading it to others, perhaps, if you’ve been asymptomatic and are harboring it yourself. So, even though it’s not 100% effective, they’re hoping that it will help reduce community spread.

And, if you’re interested in making one, if you haven’t yet, and would like to have one, the Centers for Disease Control does have instructions online for how to sew one. Or, if you prefer a no-sew option, they have templates for how to make one out of a t-shirt just with a pair of scissors or from a bandanna and rubber bands.

And there are some best practices to remember. You should wash the mask frequently or boil it in hot water. The fabric that you use should be kind of tightly woven if possible, but still breathable. And you shouldn’t ever touch the front of the mask when you’re taking it off or putting it on. You should try to use the ear loops or the strings to put it on and off.

IRA FLATOW: And then, of course, people should not expect that these masks will take the place of other protective measures, right?

AMY NORDRUM: Right, yeah, this should be done in concert with things like social distancing and frequent hand-washing and just being careful about not touching your face. So this is an additional measure that you can take to try to protect yourself and others, as well as all the things that you’ve been doing so far.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move from do-it-yourself masks to do-it-yourself ventilators. People are 3D printing them, aren’t they?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, there’s a lot of well-meaning engineers and scientists and just makers who have been trying to kind of come up with faster, cheaper ways to produce ventilators, which we know are in short supply in the US and around the world. And there’s been a lot of press for these efforts. There’s neat projects out there where people have built ventilators just from a couple of things that they bought at the hardware store.

But it’s important to keep in mind, when you see these, that these DIY versions are probably not likely to help make it into any hospital that’s in need anytime soon. A lot of them are more like prototypes that a actual ventilator maker might be able to use as a proof of concept to make a medical-grade version, but, a lot of these kind of DIY versions, they haven’t been tested for reliability or effectiveness.

They’re not able to provide all the functions that a traditional ventilator would in terms of monitoring a patient or alerting doctors and nurses if something goes wrong. And it’s tough to scale things up and make large numbers of them, which is really what’s needed right now in terms of ventilators.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and they would have to be tested out and get approval. And it would take a while because imagine the lawsuits of somebody having a bad outcome with a DIY ventilator.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, so what I see as more kind of promising is the FDA is now working with ventilator makers to allow them to make modifications to their hardware and software through like a fast approval process where they’d be able to produce, perhaps, more of these quicker than they were in the past.

IRA FLATOW: In your next story, with most of us in social isolation, self-driving cars are playing a role in some communities.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, this is interesting. You know, a lot of self-driving car companies have actually suspended their trials that required a human driver in the driver’s seat. So, while some self-driving cars for passengers are actually on hold right now, and this pandemic might be a setback for those, there’s other self-driving vehicles that are actually in huge demand. And those are the ones making deliveries of food to people that are in quarantine.

There’s a startup called Unity Drive Innovation that’s using an autonomous van to deliver food to people in three cities in China. It’s made more than 800 deliveries. And it even outfitted one of its vehicles to spray disinfectant on surfaces outside of a hospital there in Shenzhen.

And then, in Jacksonville, Florida, the Mayo Clinic is now using autonomous shuttles to move COVID-19 patient tests from one site, one testing site, to its facility for processing, supposedly kind of saving staff time in the meantime, freeing them up to do other things. So it’s interesting that there’s now a lot more demand for actually using autonomous vehicles to transport stuff, rather than people. And this might accelerate the development of these autonomous vehicles for delivery.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go on to your last story. Some countries are looking at digital tools to trace who people have come in contact. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, there have been a lot of digital tools developed to help public health officials manage this pandemic and figure out who might be at risk. And digital contact tracing is one of them. This can be done in a variety of ways, but, mostly, contact tracing, traditionally, has been done, and it’s a very manual process where you interview a patient who’s been tested positive for COVID-19 and ask them everybody that they’ve been in contact with in recent weeks and then contact them to tell them they might be at risk.

So there’s thoughts about whether smartphone data might be useful for this or, perhaps, apps that track your movement throughout a city or town. If so, it could alert you to the fact that you’ve been in contact, or you’ve crossed paths with someone who did test positive. And you might want to self-quarantine yourself.

And several nations in Europe are taking steps toward this kind of approach. So they’ve started actually using aggregate smartphone data from many different phones just to see if people are obeying stay-at-home orders. And so this might– this does, for some, raise privacy issues about tracking the movements of individuals. But, when the data is aggregated, at least public health officials have found it quite useful in tracking people’s obedience with some of these stay-at-home orders.

IRA FLATOW: Do people know they’re being tracked?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, in some– a lot of the projects, it would be voluntary participation. So you would download the app yourself. And then you could have some control over how much information you share and what locations you’ve visited that you perhaps don’t want to share.

And then there’s projects having to do with mobility tracking that Google and Facebook are working on that rely on location data. And you do have a setting in your phone on whether you share that location data or not with these apps. So you do have some measure of control over whether you participate in these kinds of projects.

IRA FLATOW: Because I had heard that Google was already seeing where people congregate and, in effect, saying, hey, look, you guys. You see there are groups of people not following the rules here.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, and Google and Facebook’s projects that they’re involved with, in terms of mobility tracking, don’t use individual data at that level. They are relying on aggregated, anonymized data. So those would be less of a concern for individuals, but things like an app that you might download to see if somebody in your neighborhood that you ran across did test positive, that would perhaps be more of a concern.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, an editor at the IEEE Spectrum here in New York City.

Copyright © 2020 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More

Your Questions About COVID-19, Answered

You’ve had a lot of questions about the novel coronavirus. We’ve compiled answers and tips from health experts we’ve interviewed on the show.

Read More