Boston researchers use high-tech tools to catch coronavirus before it claims more lives

BOSTON — When it comes to containing coronavirus, knowing where and when it might break out is a key to saving lives.

Right here in Boston, there’s a group of researchers who will know before anyone else where the virus may surface.

Boston Children’s Hospital and a Harvard professor are using high-tech tools to catch coronavirus before it claims more lives.

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Coronavirus continues to spread at an alarming rate.

The Internet is flooded with reports and information about the virus.

For these Boston researchers, it’s an opportunity, said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

“If we could harness the power of the Internet, we could get a view into an emerging public health threat like coronavirus in a way you never attain through traditional channels like public health agencies collected data," said Brownstein.

Brownstein and his team have seized that opportunity.

"It occurred to us, that there was a massive amount of data online…. sort of digital breadcrumbs left by social media, local news chat rooms," he said.

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All those bread crumbs are providing not only a road map to fighting infectious disease, but to build an up-to-date “health map"

They’ve built it to scrub all the data out there on coronavirus and other health threats.

“The Internet has now become this incredible place to get insights to get early information on disease outbreak but also be able to trap it as it spreads around the globe,” Brownstein said.

Trapping online chatter, gathering intelligence, organizing it, the complicated information with machine learning and artificial intelligence, are turning those life-saving breadcrumbs into something health officials can act upon.

That includes the threat coronavirus poses to Massachusetts and beyond.

“We’re really spending a lot of time ramping up our surveillance within the U.S.,” Brownstein said. “We built a crowdsourcing tool that looks for respiratory conditions….this is tool called FlunaryU. This is a tool that’s going to give us early insights into symptoms that are bubbling up in communities,” Brownstein said.

It might be the next best thing to a proven vaccine.

It’s real-time information, now in the hands of some of the world’s smartest researchers.

“If you can take the world’s knowledge and embed it into software, why wouldn’t you help improve the effort of those trained people with all that incredible knowledge?" Brownstein said.

They are powerful tools to possibly prevent a pandemic.

Researchers at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital, among others, have developed an informational and interactive map that tracks the number of coronavirus cases across the world, as well as how many deaths the disease has claimed but also how many people contracted the disease and have recovered.