Has Data Science Contributed to Combating COVID-19?
There’s no stopping COVID-19, at least with no near end in sight. Yes, vaccines have been developed, and yes, governments all across the world have taken measures to reduce the impact; however, certainly, this disease is here to stay. In a recent poll conducted by Nature, 89% of scientists responded with a nod to this pandemic becoming an endemic (a crisis that persists for years in pockets). Now, that’s something that self-evidently points towards leveraging the resources for reducing the effect. And there’s nothing better than ‘Data Science’ that comes to mind.
Data Science as the Means to Combat COVID-19
Data Science is a field about extracting useful information from data and presenting it intelligible and meaningful. Over time, this branch of science has evolved to juggle statistical analysis, algorithms, and IoT – with even Machine learning as one of its key components. It’s a vast field constituting many sub-branches that deal with various tasks pertaining to specific sectors, such as healthcare, business, etc.
Data Science has been used in fields like medicine, business, and even social causes. But what makes it a key solution to the problem of COVID-19?
Direct PCR & The Great Debate
In recent times, the subfield in Data Science involving DNA sequencing has emerged as a great counter-measure for fighting off COVID-19. Regarding the disease’s recent origin (as hypothesized by scientists), just as with any other data, scientists can study the history and spread of the disease through DNA sequencing.
The great debate is whether or not the disease has always been here or if it has emerged due to trespassing from a different virus strain. Right now, scientists are studying a vast database under the term ‘COVID-19 Sequencing’ containing nearly 1 million sequences of DNA taken from people who died of this disease.
The situation is like finding a needle in a haystack when you don’t know where it fell from or if it even exists as part of a haystack.
It’s noteworthy that there has been some success — at least from a theoretical point of view.
For instance, Nawaz et al. (2021) studied genome sequencing through the employment of data analytics and AI and found that sequential pattern mining and mutation analysis can, in fact, be a reality for future genome pattern forecasting and past genome pattern development.
Mining for Information Through Data Visualisation
Accurate information regarding a pandemic is key to containing it. Biologists have mined through nearly 1 million sequences of DNA and haven’t found any patterns. But as the saying goes — ‘a picture says a thousand words.’ When you look at the timeline, you are sure to spot a number of dots scattered on it.
Such visualization boosts the governments’ efforts to promote social distancing and practices like self-isolation and quarantine. It also helps in understanding the size and scope of a pandemic and the speed at which it is spreading.
And it’s not just about the extremely technical realms, for visualization can help spread information in the most understandable way possible. Consider the example of articles and blog posts. For that matter, information is beautifully condensed into a chart or table for seamless comprehension (the images on this page themselves serve as an example for that).
Facilitation of App-based tracking
Monitoring the movement of a disease can only be possible if the general public plays its part. The quick and easy access to apps makes it easier for you to get involved. You just have to tap the screen, and you’re good to go. No more waiting in line or sifting through hundreds of websites for official reports.
One interesting thing about such apps is that they also act as a source of data collection regarding illness conditions and trends at a local level. Just as we have primary and secondary sources, the apps also collect data from users, which is then subsequently aggregated and published. It also means that more than just the information available on medical records at a local level is collected and reported.
But not only do app-based services help us monitor diseases, some even capture our own behaviors to predict variations of disease trends. An interesting example is the ‘ Flu Near You ‘ app, which receives anonymous data about illnesses and can aggregate them in an online map. Although its effectiveness is not verified, this app is useful as it collects data from both mobile phones and search engines about flu-related symptoms. Nevertheless, it provides a huge public database full of real-time information, allowing anyone to search for places with a high prevalence of symptoms.
Other prominent examples include The Nightingale Project and the Aarogya Setu app.
What does the Future Hold?
Data Science is a field that lends itself to aiding the data-driven decisions of the government, which makes it ideal for application in fields such as medicine, business, and even social causes. It has further been able to help make discoveries in regions where lack of information made things difficult, especially an arena like the one COVID-19 currently espouses.
As a matter of fact, data scientists have been to deduce what sequence COVID-19 is related to by comparing it with sequences from across databases. The question now is whether or not this disease has always existed or if it emerged due to trespassing from a different strain of the virus. HIV was an example of a pandemic that originated due to trespassing from another virus and is an example of a pandemic that has persisted for thousands of years. On a wilder scale, the natural history of cancers from histological examinations is as old as recorded medical history, yet they’ve accumulated into one large cluster of disease types.
However, considering that the advances are still being made, the idea of these diseases completely being warded off the planet can’t be ruled out — at least not after witnessing how data science has emerged as a revolutionary subject during the entire COVID-19 pandemic.
It is clear that with the development of data science and Big Data technologies, we are much closer to a world without pandemics than ever before. A regulated engagement between data scientists and government officials can be highly beneficial for fighting diseases.