Scientists might be able to predict where coronavirus hotspots are about to emerge simply by analysing Google searches.
Researchers found that surges in search terms related to coronavirus symptoms tend to happen weeks before a rise in infections is reported in an area.
The finding could offer doctors a new tool to track the virus, the researchers said.
They compared data from Google Trends for gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms related to COVID-19, including abdominal pain, diarrhoea and ageusia (loss of taste), with Harvard data on the incidence for the virus, ScienceAlert reported.
The research was published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
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The team, led by Imama Ahmad, a gastroenterologist from North Shore Medical Centre in Salem, Massachusetts, wrote: “Our results show that Google searches for specific, common GI symptoms correlated with incidence of COVID-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic in five states with high disease burden.
“Specifically, searches for ageusia and loss of appetite correlated most strongly with the rise in COVID-19 cases in high-incidence states.”
The researchers said that the “lag” between searches for symptoms and reported cases was longer than with the flu.
They wrote: “Thus, searches for GI symptoms preceded the rise in reported COVID-19 in a predictable fashion, slightly longer than the one to two-week lag time observed in prior studies on influenza.
“The observed time difference could be related to differences in testing availability, reporting, or longer incubation period of COVID-19 compared with Influenza.”
In a blog post, Google announced it was making data about the coronavirus public.
The company said: “Today we’re making available a dataset of search trends for researchers to study the link between symptom-related searches and the spread of COVID-19. We hope this data could lead to a better understanding of the pandemic’s impact.”
The researchers believe that the technique could be useful in predicting and dealing with pandemics.
“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.”