RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — The coronavirus outbreak has killed at least 362 people and infected more than 17,300 globally, as it continues to spread beyond China.
But back here in RTP, researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard University, University of Oxford and University of Toronto, are working to understand its spread by tracking it in a novel way — using geolocation data from the social media platform Twitter.
Donal Bisanzio, DVM PhD, Senior Epidemiologist at RTI, and Richard Reithinger, PhD, Vice President of Global Health at RTI, have been studying the virus since cases began to be reported in early January.
According to the data, public health officials should anticipate new cases in new countries to soon be reported based on a correlation between geolocated data from a group of Twitter users from Wuhan and the original location of previously reported cases of the virus.
“We chose to review locations of Twitter users because data of travelers during the inception of the virus had already been studied using flight information, census surveys and mobile phone traffic — these methods do not necessarily allow identification of intermediate or final travel destinations,” said Reithinger, in a statement. “Geolocated data of Twitter users had not yet been studied and by identifying where tweets from this time period originated, we can get a better idea of exactly where these users physically were.”
Bisanzio and Reithinger created a database of tweets during the time period of when exposure to coronavirus first occurred up until travel into and out of Wuhan became restricted by Chinese authorities as part of their response to the outbreak.
They filtered the database to include users who posted at least two tweets on consecutive days within the city of Wuhan to ensure that each user was physically in Wuhan. After filtering the pool of users, they reviewed the group’s activity on Twitter for a 30-day period to determine whether they had traveled outside of Wuhan based on the geolocated data from each of their tweets.
The researchers expect new cases to be reported in the U.K. (two of which were confirmed this morning), Saudi Arabia and Indonesia — all countries in which the group of Twitter users traveled to based on geolocated data within 30 days after tweeting from Wuhan more than once.
Of the nearly 1,344 Twitter users Bisanzio and Reithinger studied, 133 users traveled to 157 locations in China and 60 users traveled to 119 locations in 28 countries during the time period studied, including the U.S., Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Australia. This means that some of the users studied traveled to many locations in a very short period — increasing the probability of the spread of the virus.
“Based on our research, we anticipate new cases of coronavirus to soon be reported,” said Reithinger. “Our main message to health officials is that if your city is on the map or close to where the study’s Twitter users visited, draw up plans to sensitize the population and health providers to the possible emergence of 2019-novel coronavirus, particularly in patients with a history of travel to Wuhan.”