Google has worked with researchers from Oxford University to create a new Covid-19 tracking database that will help governments monitor how the easing of lockdown measures is affecting case rates and spot the next wave before it spreads.
Global.health, which is launching today, will pool anonymised data on Covid-19 cases, allowing researchers to chart things such as whether people had been to Covid-19 hotspots and when exactly their symptoms started.
This will allow epidemiologists to perform much more detailed and faster analysis on what is leading the virus to spread.
The system has been touted as "the most comprehensive line-list Covid-19 database in the world that includes millions of anonymised records from trusted sources spanning over 100 countries", each containing information such as people's travel history and whether they had existing health conditions.
Global.health was created by a consortium of researchers from institutions including the University of Oxford, Tsinghua University, Northeastern University and Boston Children’s Hospital, using funding from Google's charity arm Google.org.
It builds on an earlier database known as Healthmap, which had been among the earliest to spot the Covid-19 outbreak in December 2019, but had been overwhelmed by the complexity and scale of the pandemic, with scientists having struggled to manually curate data from hundreds of different websites.
Google.org fellows helped create a system for getting verified and quality information onto the database whilst ensuring no personal data was on the site. The data is stored by Boston Children’s Hospital.
Dr Moritz Kraemer from the University of Oxford said the system would be key going forward as the UK charts a course out of lockdown: "This database can be incredibly powerful in providing information back to the policymakers. If we have vaccine passports and have more people traveling between, say, the UK and Greece in the spring, it will show if we see clusters of transmission occurring and let us start thinking about, okay, why is that a case?
"It will give us the ingredients for doing informed analysis going forward, something which is going to be necessary for a more tailored approach to reopening".
He said such a comprehensive database could have helped countries such as the UK prevent such widespread outbreaks at the start of the pandemic. "If we had known where these infections had occurred, whether there were imported cases in particular regions, together with the knowledge we now have about the epidemiology of the disease, we would have been much better at controlling this pandemic"."
"We will have more pandemics in the future, whether it's new Covid-19 variants or other ones that emerge. But there's hope for the future that a more rapid, accurate ingestion of good data will lead to better decision making".