Examining data from 15 states, researchers found that searches for coronavirus symptoms "increased 4 weeks" before a rise in cases was reported

By Maria Pasquini
September 14, 2020 03:50 PM
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An increase in searches for symptoms commonly associated with COVID-19 may help predict emerging hotspots, according to a recent study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

To determine whether there was a link between an increased volume of online queries for gastrointestinal symptoms linked to the novel coronavirus — vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea — as well ageusia, or loss of taste, and a rise in confirmed coronavirus cases, researchers compared data compiled by Google Trends with case incidence information collected by Harvard University.

Researchers examined data from 15 states from January to April, choosing five states that experienced the highest number of cases during that time period, including New York, New Jersey and California, as well as five states that had a “median incidence” rate, and five states with the lowest reported amount of cases.

"Searches for GI symptoms preceded the rise in reported COVID-19 in a predictable fashion,” researchers wrote in the study, noting that the data showed “Google search interest in ageusia, loss of appetite, and diarrhea increased 4 weeks prior to the rise in COVID-19 cases for most states.”

Researchers went on to note that the lapse between a rise in cases “could be related to differences in testing availability, reporting, or longer incubation period.”

Although the authors cautioned that Google Trends is “not an epidemiological tool for determining incidence,” they wrote that “it can estimate the popularity of a certain disease by search volume over time.”

Noting that loss of taste was a popular search in “all top-incidence states” as well as “2 median incidence states and 1 low-incidence state,” researchers wrote that the increase was “unlikely to be solely related to increasing national awareness of COVID-19."

"Our data underscore the importance of GI symptoms as a potential harbinger of COVID-19 infection and suggests that Google Trends may be a valuable tool for prediction of pandemics with GI manifestations," the researchers explained.

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As noted in the study, Google Search data has been used by researchers in the past in connection with “infectious disease incidence” and “disease forecasting” — and Google announced earlier this month that it would be making its search trend data available "for researchers to study the link between symptom-related searches and the spread of COVID-19.”

However, study authors went on to note that due to data anonymization, which helps protects privacy, it’s impossible to “account for potentially confounding variables,” including “demographics, occupational factors, or Internet use patterns.”

As of Monday afternoon, more than 6.5 million people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 194,066 have died, according to The New York Times.

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