UT-Austin researchers aid new coronavirus data collection

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Zhwanwei Du | Daily Texan Staff

Two UT researchers helped discover that the new coronavirus likely spread beyond Wuhan into other cities before Chinese officials could initiate a quarantine, according to the UT News website.

Coronavirus is a viral respiratory illness. The newest version to infect humans, 2019-nCoV, was first discovered in December in Wuhan and has killed almost 1,000 people, according to the Feb. 10 novel coronavirus report by the World Health Organization. The UT researchers involved in the seven-person team conducting the monthlong study were Zhanwei Du, computer scientist and doctor of philosophy, and Lauren Ancel Meyers, a mathematical epidemiologist and professor of integrative biology.

“We were immediately concerned when we learned that the outbreak was growing in Wuhan, knowing that China was about to enter its Spring Festival period,” Meyers said. “This is the period where hundreds of millions of people travel all around China to celebrate the Lunar New Year. One of the big questions was, ‘How was the increase in travel over the next few weeks going to cause the virus to spread all over China?’”

The team, which also included researchers from Hong Kong and France, used historical road, train and air travel data for the Spring Festival season to chart human movements between 371 cities in China, Du said. The Spring Festival season lasts from Jan. 10 to Feb. 18.

“We were able to obtain data on daily travel patterns in and out of Wuhan to 370 other cities around China,” Meyers said. “We did a very rapid analysis to predict where and when we would expect this virus to appear in other cities by travelers who got infected in Wuhan.”

Du said when the team began their research around Jan. 5, there were few cases of the novel coronavirus reported in China.

“As soon as the quarantine was imposed, we refocused our research on how importations to other cities probably happened prior to the quarantine,” Meyers said. “There was just so much more uncertainty at the time we started. The information coming out of China was indicating that this was a virus that was not spreading from person to person.”

2019-nCoV can spread from person to person through contacts at or under six feet and when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the CDC’s website.

 

Du said when they began their research, the Wuhan government said the virus was only spread from animals to humans and had only reported 9% of cases in Wuhan by Jan. 12, partly because they did not have data on every case that had occurred.

“Now almost 300 cities have confirmed cases,” Du said. “We estimated before (the January report) almost 10,000 people in Wuhan (were) infected. However, (the Wuhan government) only reported a small handful of those.”

Meyers said the researchers are analyzing potential safety measures that may need to be taken in the U.S., such as isolation and travel restrictions. Texas Global added China to its UT Restricted Regions list Jan. 29 to bar undergraduates from traveling to the country, a week after the Chinese government imposed a quarantine on Wuhan and 15 other cities.

“We are working with agencies like the CDC to try to analyze when and where might we see introductions of this disease around the U.S. and the world,” Meyers said. “If and when that happens, (we want to determine) our best strategies for trying to contain the spread.”