In November 2002, when SARS, a respiratory virus broke out in southern China, 774 people died and 8,098 were infected. Nearly 17 years later in December 2019, the Novel Coronavirus was first identified in the Wuhan province, a similar respiratory illness to SARS. 

At the time of publishing there are upwards of 37,500 confirmed cases, mostly in mainland China, and 15 cases in Australia. Last week, the WHO declared the Novel Coronavirus a global health emergency.

While the two diseases share similar origins and genetic code, the world is a very different place compared to 18 years ago.  At the time when SARS first appeared,  the full human genome had still not been fully sequenced, and wouldn’t be for another year.  Indeed, the contrast in how long it took this time around to build the genetic model of the disease provides a rich contrast to the world of 19 years ago.

According to Uschi Schreiber, EY Fellow, Digital Society and Innovation, writing on Linkedin, “Scientists in China sequenced the Corona virus’s genome and made it available on January 10th, just a month after the December 8 report of the first case of pneumonia from an unknown virus in Wuhan.”

Uschi Schreiber, EY Fellow, Digital Society and Innovation

“In contrast,” she said, “After the SARS outbreak began in late 2002, it took scientists much longer to sequence that coronavirus. It peaked in February 2003 — and the complete genome of 29,727 nucleotides wasn’t sequenced until that April.”

On the information technology front, in 2002, there was no social media, no smartphones and Wi-Fi was only just getting off the ground.  

The current pandemic illustrates that the way information moves around the world has changed dramatically; in some cases helping control and fight the disease and in others aiding the spread of misinformation.

Theresa Do, Manager, Federal Health Advisory and Epidemiologist at SAS said when SARS first broke out, there were fewer data sources that could be leveraged such as social media, internet of things devices as well as fewer technologies to help with diagnostics. 

“Phone apps that can help with health tracking and diagnostics were a thing of the future. The iPhone first came out in 2007, four years after SARS broke out,” Do told Which-50.

“With the advent of the iPhone and the types of apps and technologies, we are able to leverage a lot more data to form predictions while also ensuring data protections are in place.”

Nowadays, Do explains there are more ways that people can communicate to quickly distribute public health prevention efforts as well as quell any misinformation regarding public health threats such as the Coronavirus. 

“Providers have more information at their fingertips versus when SARS first broke out during the early stages and availability of the internet. 

“Patients would have had to disclose their information and take manual measurements such as temperature whereas today, internet of things devices can quickly take temperature reads and stream this to providers. Now individuals can be alerted through text and other measures of nearby events such as an outbreak occurring nearby.”

To help people track the virus and see where there are current cases, John Hopkins University in Baltimore has built an online dashboard to visualise and track the reported cases on a daily timescale. 

The interactive map shows affected areas and how many confirmed cases, death and recoveries there have been. 

Lauren Gardner, associate professor in civil and systems engineering said, “The dashboard is intended to provide the public with an understanding of the outbreak situation as it unfolds, with transparent data sources.”

The case data visualised is collected from various sources, including WHO, the United States Centre for Disease Control, ECDC China CDC (CCDC), NHC and DXY. 

“DXY is a Chinese website that aggregates NHC and local CCDC situation reports in near real-time, providing more current regional case estimates than the national level reporting organisations are capable of, and is thus used for all the mainland China cases reported in our dashboard (confirmed, suspected, recovered, deaths).

“US cases (confirmed, suspected, recovered, deaths) are taken from the US CDC, and all other country (suspected and confirmed) case data is taken from the corresponding regional health departments,” she said. 

Which-50 reached out to CSIRO’s analytics arm Data61 but said they were unable to make a comment on coronavirus at this time. 

The data can also help experts if and when the next outbreak occurs. 

According to Kent Brown, practice leader, supply chain COE at Korn Ferry Professional Search, leaders can track the Novel Coronavirus’s impact across a range of data points to better forecast risk and response for the next outbreak. 

He said, “leaders can look at the numbers and put in algorithms to mitigate the effect.”

Impact on supply chain 

This outbreak has also affected supply chains as airlines like Qantas have suspended flights to mainland China to try and counteract the spread, Apple has closed one store within the Wuhan region and Google has temporarily shut its offices in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Virgin Australia has gone as far as canceling its flights to Hong Kong indefinitely.

Diana Chan, leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial Markets practice in Greater China said, “Most companies were not prepared for such a nationwide shutdown for this long.”

The sudden halting of travel into and out of China also means companies have limited opportunities to source alternative partners, according to Mehrab Deboo, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Supply Chain Center of Expertise.

He said shipments will be delayed as organisations scramble to reroute or find alternate routes for cargo. “The full effect of the virus won’t be known for months, but it is going to test the adaptability and nimbleness of supply chains for multiple global industries.”

Brown said in times of sudden disruption, risk management becomes very important.

“What kind of exposure does a company have, how close to the source is it located, when might the ban be lifted? You have to figure out these logistical questions and manage from there.”

Gartner said although it is difficult to predict the exact consequences of coronavirus, organisations might begin to see impacts across the supply chain, including materials, labour, sourcing, logistics and consumers. 

The consequences of a pandemic event are hard to predict, says Koray Köse, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner. “However, the risks always exist and are augmented with further globalisation and integration of supply chains. It is not a matter of if it will happen but to change the focus to be prepared when it happens. That is a shift of mindset in risk management and business continuity.”

What the future will bring

In the case of future outbreaks and pandemics, Do hopes for more advanced diagnostic tools that can more quickly and rapidly test for viral strains. 

Theresa Do, Manager, Federal Health Advisory and Epidemiologist at SAS

“[I also hope the] identification of genetic protections through further research in the areas of precision medicine can give us insights into possible protective factors for those that have better outcomes versus those that do not,” she explains. 

Do wants technology to be able to better identify discrepancies or anomalies in personal patterns to trigger alerts that an individual may want to seek care based on a variety of integration points across medical devices.  

“I also hope that there is better technology to ensure data protections so that data can be leveraged through masking to quickly identify patterns or spread of possible epidemics.”

Fake news and social media

Social media has a certain notoriety when it comes to misinformation where fake news spreads like wildfire with the click of a share button. The coronavirus outbreak is no exception.

Do said the spread of misinformation impacts not only tracking but prevention efforts. 

“I think that if public health officials can be informed of the misinformation around threats such as the coronavirus they can better form the messaging around the misinformation to ensure that the public has the best information.

“If there is misinformation where people feel threatened coming forward with possible symptoms, this could cause a greater spread of the virus. 

“Moreover, blogs and other chats are also bodies of information that can help us identify if something may be happening with verification across other data avenues,” she adds. 

Twitter has reported that more than 15 million tweets about the disease have been sent over the past four weeks. 

Some Tik Tok users are pretending to have the virus, with one teenager in Vancouver, Canada pretending to have the Coronavirus, gaining 4.1 million views, 817,000 likes and 5,100 comments. 

The WHO has had to use its Twitter account to do a FAQ thread answering basic questions like ‘How does the disease spread?’ and ‘who can catch the disease?’

Dr Kerry Chant, Deputy Secretary, Population and Public Health and Chief Health Officer at NSW Health said people need to be careful in their engagement with social media. 

“I have personally seen a lot of social media posts which are very wrong. Things like you can catch novel coronavirus by eating certain foods, you can catch novel coronavirus by going to certain places.”

One of these posts being shared around Facebook said eating certain foods could pose a risk to contracting the virus and there have been positive readings at train stations. The post said it came from a “Department of Diseasology Parramatta”, an organisation that does not exist. 

She said the passing on of this information adds to community anxiety in a time where the department of health wants to provide reassurance that they are taking a precautionary approach. 

The department of health is using social media platforms like WeChat, Weibo, Twitter and Facebook to send messages to those who might be affected by the disease to be comfortable to come forward and get tested. 

Chant said it is very hard to control and combat every social media post, particularly when they’re in private networks as they can’t intervene unless they are a part of that network. 

“So it does provide some challenges to us in verifying that,” she said. 

Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are combating the spread of fake news implementing a number of steps. 

Jun Chu, head of public policy APAC for Twitter said they are trying to stop the spread of misinformation through preventing platform manipulation, expanding search prompt and direct engagement.

She said Twitter is not seeing a coordinated attempt to spread disinformation at scale but will continue to be vigilant. 

When searching for “coronavirus” on Twitter, the first result is a few lines from the social media company saying “know the facts” and directing users to the Australian Department of Health and the WHO. 

Chu said this is so users are met with credible, authoritative information first. Twitter is also stopping any auto-suggest results that are likely to direct individuals to non-credible content on Twitter. 

Twitter’s Global Public Policy team is proactively seeking ways to integrate the product with organisations involved in the effort to contain the threat. 

“Experts, NGOs, and governments play a pivotal public service role, using Twitter to reach people with the right information when they need it. We’re committed to playing our part to amplify authoritative, official content across the globe,” said Chu. 

Facebook is taking steps in a similar vein by limiting misinformation and harmful content, providing helpful information and support and empowering partners with data tools. 

Kang-Xing Jin, Head of Health at Facebook said the company has its third-party fact-checkers reviewing content and debunking false claims that are spreading related to the coronavirus. 

He said, “We’re focusing on claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions. This includes claims related to false cures or prevention methods — like drinking bleach cures the coronavirus — or claims that create confusion about health resources that are available.  

“We will also block or restrict hashtags used to spread misinformation on Instagram, and are conducting proactive sweeps to find and remove as much of this content as we can.”

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