The global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the crucial need for a rapid, joined-up approach to tackling such threats to our health – and virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Technology holds the key to ensuring we can live with the virus threat rather than dying from it. In the second of a series of three blogs, we look at some of the problems with current pandemic mitigation approaches – and whether a better technology solution exists.
An incomplete picture
Policy decisions are usually based on aggregated country-level data, which is often lacking full detailed context. This can lead to decisions which work on aggregate least-worst-option principals – and they can vary wildly in their effectiveness, depending on the local situation.
One of the key characteristics of our current pandemic is that COVID-19 is spread by human behaviour – so restricting human behaviour will restrict the spread of the virus. This has led to country-wide lockdowns around the world.
In the UK, this in turn has resulted in a frozen economy, rising unemployment, increased government debt to fund industrial intervention – and an increasingly frustrated population. It's clear the lockdown will be less effective and more costly the longer the situation exists.
Another key characteristic of our current situation is that pandemics do not spread uniformly. Different areas of the country have been – and will continue to be – affected to different extents and at different times.
A four-pronged approach
The UK government's original strategy for dealing with the pandemic involved a four-pronged approach:
- Research – for vaccines and more effective treatment
- Contain – manual track and trace to restrict the spread of infection
- Delay – flatten the curve of infections to aid the health service
- Mitigate – how to keep the country functioning during an ongoing pandemic
Research is continuing but, whilst several promising new treatment and vaccine candidates are emerging, the generally accepted timeframe is that a medical solution to the pandemic is 12-18 months away.
Contain relies on manual track-and-trace efforts. It is heavily prone to human error and, as the highly virulent nature of the coronavirus became apparent – and a large number of cases emerged in a short timeframe – the manual processes were quickly overwhelmed.
Delay has led to the current country-wide lockdown situation and has successfully flattened the infection curve. However, it can only be a temporary measure and not the end solution.
Mitigate is the most complex phase, containing an expected ongoing process of balancing risk of exposure and economic activity. Restarting economic activity is going to be very expensive and may trigger a second wave of cases. This phase will require the most amount of planning – and continuous data collection, analysis and situation monitoring.
Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have demonstrated the effectiveness of widespread testing combined with vigorous track-and-trace initiatives, including the use of technology solutions such as mobile apps to aid the contact-tracing process.
The UK is in the process of ramping up its testing capacity and potentially using Bluetooth-based apps to bring a level of automation to contact tracing. However, although this is a step in the right direction, a Bluetooth-only approach could be seen as a half-measure, with some fundamental flaws:
- Bluetooth-only contact tracing is a reactionary solution, not a proactive one – if you are close enough to catch a Bluetooth signal, you are close enough to have already caught the virus
- Bluetooth signals are inaccurate – signals could be received through the windows of an isolation booth and can propagate further than airborne viral spread
- Bluetooth on its own only tells you who, not where – a person travelling on a train could infect many people at opposite ends of the country in a single day
- Bluetooth by itself does not enable a co-ordinated response – whilst helping reduce onward infections with post-exposure mitigation, it isn’t effective for pre-exposure prevention
This all suggests we should be looking for a better technology solution. Moving from reactionary measures to proactive solutions is the key to more effectively managing – and getting ahead of – the pandemic.
When it comes to data-driven decisions, context is king – and location is king of context. The prevalence of communications technology in the form of widespread mobile phone adoption, when harnessed fully, can provide sophisticated environmental sensing.
When combined with additional datasets, and the ability to carry out rapid large-scale location data analytics, it would provide full-situational contextual intelligence, which in turn can enable true data-driven decision making – leading to more effective management of the ongoing pandemic.
Reinventing how big data is organised
In the last post of this series, we will discuss how GeoSpock DB – the groundbreaking space-time indexing engine for rapid extreme-scale analytics at a fraction of the cost – can help governments to fight and win the battle against COVID-19.