Internet searches for gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms have been shown to predict an increase in coronavirus cases weeks later—a finding that eventually could be utilized as a novel early-warning system for the ongoing pandemic’s hot spots across the country, according to a new study by Massachusetts General Hospital.
The research, published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, compared search interest of well-known coronavirus symptoms, such as loss of taste and appetite and diarrhea, with the reported incidence of coronavirus infections in fifteen states from January 20 to April 20.
The study then tapped into Alphabet Inc.’s Google Trends online tool to pinpoint strong correlations between searches and confirmed cases in New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois. All of these states witnessed elevated case numbers three to four weeks later.
A similar approach was undertaken to monitor influenza trends more than a decade ago.
“Our data underscore the importance of GI symptoms as a potential harbinger of COVID-19 infection and suggests that Google Trends may be a valuable tool for prediction of pandemics with GI manifestations,” Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist and the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s gastrointestinal motility laboratory, and colleagues wrote in the study.
The researchers noted that they would eventually like to have more specific data on search results, such as “demographics, occupational factors, or Internet use patterns.”
“While our study provides information about popular search terms and their relationship to incidence, it is important to note that the relative nature of Google Trends data does not allow for defining specific increased interest thresholds,” the study said.
In another unique effort to predict coronavirus hot spots, scientists have started testing for traces of coronavirus in wastewater.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal government agencies, is working with state, local, territorial, and tribal health departments to collect coronavirus-related data on sewage samples.
The initiative, called the National Wastewater Surveillance System, or NWSS, according to the CDC’s updated guidance, aims to identify the novel coronavirus before it can spread rapidly in local communities.
The reach has the potential to be immense, as an estimated 80% of all U.S. households are connected to a municipal sewage system.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.