Q & A – What data can tell us about COVID-19

Here are some of the questions, and responses from our guest panellists from our ‘Data Science in the News’ Webinar on Friday, 27 March, 2020

Q from Maz: What is the anticipation in terms of economic impact of COVID-19 from short term and long term point of view?

A from Dr Char-Lee Moyle: It depends on how we respond. If we manage the change the impact can be reduced. However, for the tourism industry, which has probably been the hardest hit by this event, it will be a long road to recovery. Tourism will rebound but it will be a very different industry. Not only will tourism need to overcome the short-term constraints as a result of the lock-down, but the activity is intrinsically linked to wealth which will be reduced globally. In addition, this event is causing behaviour change with people to use digital technology to connect virtually, which will see tourism activity remain below pre-virus levels for a long time to come.


Q from Jason: Has the panic purchasing (such as toilet paper) stemmed from social media? And, if so, how and what platforms?

A from Assoc Prof Daniel Angus: To some degree, however mainstream media played a significant role in promoting these panics by picking up social media material and amplifying it. I provided some analysis on this here: https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/panic-buying-toilet-paper-a-mass-psychological-event-experts-say/12040078

Watch video of the webinar


Q: Let’s say the current epidemic is stopped by the government measures. However, we can not grow resistance  among the people to this virus soon. Therefore, might there be again spreading of COVID-19.?

A from Prof Gerry Fitzgerald: If we can break the transmission, then the virus will die out. However, if it continues to spread then we must wait for a vaccine.


Q from Aditya: With the onsaught of data coming in, primarily through forwards via Whatsapp, how does one know which data is reliable?

A from Prof Raja Jurdak: Ensure you check trusted sources, and ideally confirm data through multiple trusted sources (government, WHO)


Q from Marie: I don’t recall the govt giving funds to business during the GFC crisis?! Wouldn’t this have an influence on the business curves this time?!

A from Dr Char-Lee Moyle: There were strategies implemented during the GFC to reduce the shock, but Australia was very lucky at the time to be going through a major mining boom. That is not the case presently, but the government is aiming to cushion the blow. However, this is a very different crisis to the GFC. During the GFC our industries were still functioning – currently there are some industries, like tourism which typically thrives when the dollar is low, that cannot support the economy or keep people in jobs. Tourism is one of the major employers in Australia.


Q from Paul: Daniel, are there interventions by Queensland Health or other government institutions that use the most frequent #tags to counter mis-information?

A from Assoc Prof Daniel Angus: None that I am aware of. Which is not to say they aren’t doing this, but if they aren’t I would certainly encourage them to do so. During the 2011 floods the authorities used social media very well to spread relevant messages, and leveraged highly connected ‘champions’ to get correct information out and spreading through the social networks.


Q from Anurag: With the data you currently have, is there a possibility to identify geolocations (at least the suburbs) so that people is that specific region can be warned about it?

A from Prof Raja Jurdak: Not with the data we have access to, but the telcos and the government would have access to it.


Q from Vibhor: In case of Black Swan events such as GFC, COVID-19 – how do we make decisions when we don’t have much data? There is plenty of data out there, it’s a matter of making it available and having the data scientists to use it.

A from Prof Gerry Fitzgerald: There is a lot of data out there now. On Pubmed there are over 4,000 articles published on COVID 19 in three months this year. The above data sources are helpful. However, in the early stages, the authorities were operating in a fog of confusion. This is sadly normal in disasters. It takes time to collect information and share that information with others. The connectivity of the world has helped that as the informal channels are also useful. We manage the Black Swan events by relying on foundational principles and the lessons learned from similar events. This one has been challenging. We are used to pandemics but this one behaved differently to Influenza which is the most common one we have to deal with. When all else fails, put someone we trust in charge and let them take charge. They will do their best. 


Q from Nadia: To Dan Angus, what kind of data is needed from the social media platforms in order to researchers do modelling and analysis?

A from Assoc Prof Daniel Angus: Secure API access to Facebook groups and pages for a start, all with strong user privacy provisions. At present we have no research-specific API for any major platforms. Even Twitter’s API is limited in what we can obtain.


Q from Chris: Curious to know what the panelists think of the impact from ‘citizen’ data scientists promoting their analysis of COVID-19?

A from Prof Gerry Fitzgerald: This can be helpful. We have seen this in areas of disaster impact analysis where “geeks” all round the word in their darkened home dungeons analyse the imagery and produce an impact assessment. However, a word of caution. They will come up with different figures and want to tell the world what they found. That has the potential to create confusion and undermine trust in the system and its approach. I know we can’t stop people expressing their opinion, but we do need clarity and consistency. Not sure how to do that.


Q from Rowena: Fantastic presentations. Is there work being done on employment like there is on business?

A from Dr Char-lee Moyle:  Yes, this is coming. Once the LABii/BLADE integration occurs (due June) we will be able to undertake predictive modelling to estimate the impact on firm-level employment.


Q: How can help data to stop further epidemics?

A from Prof Gerry Fitzgerald: Live online disease notification or syndromic surveillance systems.


Q from Paul : The narrative about the curve has been strongly informed by the “Imperial College” modelling and similar modelling by University of Sydney in Australia. Oxford University yesterday released quite a different analysis suggesting many more individuals may already be infected (rather asymptomatic) than Imperial modelling (and current identified cases). Do you have a view on the two different approaches? 

A from Prof Gerry Fitzgerald: Paul there is a lot happening and a lot unknown. The UK has significant and sustained community transmission as does Italy and Spain. In Australia, the vast majority of cases remain imported and there is little evidence of significant community transmission at this time. We are thus in a different position on the epidemic curve. However, the issue is whether there is significant ‘undiagnosed’ disease in the community which is contributing to community transmission and this informs different approaches to predictions. I am ready to bet there is at least one case of undiagnosed disease. However, are there millions? In particular, is there considerable asymptomatic transmission amongst children? Well, in Australia it is unlikely. Because if there was, then they would be infecting lots of other people then those who became ill (the older people) would be turning up in hospitals and health services and they are not in any significant numbers. These would be the tip of the iceberg, but no, tip no berg. This is also the experience in Hubei. It may be that children are getting the disease in a mild form that is not symptomatic but in that case, they may not be highly infective to others. It is all about the number of viruses people are shedding and therefore the risks of transmission to others. In Hubei, only 1-3% of direct contact of cases had tested positive. In Australia we have tested 250,000 and found about 4,000 positives. The current test (which is a little labour intensive) identifies the presence of the virus. New point of care antibody tests are now available and starting to roll out. These will identify a whole heap of people who had the disease, mounted a rapid and effective antibody response and got better. Tracking of their contacts may be helpful in tracking down any potential new pathways for domestic transmission. 

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