Data scientist explains how Google searches could help in coronavirus fight

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An economist and expert on big data penned an op-ed in the New York Times Sunday that said Google search terms may help health officials determine the next coronavirus hot spot.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist, wrote that searches for “I can’t smell” increased in states like Louisiana and New York last week, two of the hardest-hit states in the US.

It is widely known that the loss of taste and smell is a key indicator of a coronavirus infection.

Stephens-Davidowitz pointed out that Ecuadorians are “making more searches related to the loss of smell than any other country in the world.”

“Searches for “no puedo oler” (“I can’t smell”) are some 10 times higher per Google search in Ecuador than they are in Spain, even though Ecuador officially reports more than ten times fewer COVID-19 cases per capita than Spain does,” he wrote.

He wrote that he downloaded “state-level Google search data in the previous week for dozens of symptoms” that he obtained from medicinenet.com and found that the three most common complaints were the loss of smell, fever and chills. But he also noticed that the fourth most common search was eye pain.

He wrote that “my eyes hurt” were high searches in Spain last February and states that were hit hard by the virus. He pointed out that there have been reports that coronavirus patients complained of eye trouble.

The coronavirus has infected 1.2 million people across the world and killed about 70,000. There is no cure or vaccine for the virus so health officials have insisted that the public exercises “social distancing.”

There are many elements about the virus that remains vexing, like why it is fatal in some cases and asymptomatic in others. The potential that a Google search could give governments early knowledge about where the virus may hit next could be valuable in exercising early quarantines.

Stephens-Davidowitz admitted that just because “my eyes hurt” increased in these states, it is not proof, but he wrote, “search data offers suggestive evidence that eye pain can be a symptom of the disease. However, it might only affect a small fraction of Covid-19 patients.”

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