COVID-19 simulator could help track virus spread as restrictions eased
May 07, 2020
By Stuart Layt
A mathematical model that simulates the spread of coronavirus through a community is being put forward by researchers as a way to get an early warning of potential hotspots as movement restrictions are eased.
University of Queensland Associate Professor Yoni Nazarathy and colleagues from Cornell, MIT, and Melbourne University decided to join the battle against COVID-19 several weeks ago, however as they were all involved in statistics and mathematical modelling, their services weren’t needed on the front line.
Instead, as the pandemic began to spread, they put their heads together and developed a coronavirus simulator they call "Safe Blues".
"Because COVID is highly unobservable, most of what we’re grappling with is a lack of observation – the disease has a two-week latent period, and we’re not testing everybody," Professor Nazarathy said.
"So if we could run a parallel 'virus' that behaves just like COVID but is completely safe and testable, we’ll be in great shape because then governments will see how the virus behaves when social-distancing measures are eased."
Safe Blues would operate by using smartphones to exchange digital "tokens" with other phones they come into proximity with, giving real-time data on the spread of the simulated "virus".
While it would be used on smartphones, Professor Nazarathy said it was not a contact-tracing app such as the federal government’s COVIDSafe app, which has attracted privacy concerns.
"It's just a token-passing mechanism that simulates virus-like transmission on the actual population," he said.
"The idea is to be extremely privacy preserving – if you contrast it with contact-tracing apps, they use Bluetooth and our framework would probably use Bluetooth as well, but the function is very different.
"Contact tracing is all about finding individuals, while Safe Blues is all about aggregate movements, so there isn’t the same privacy concern."
In addition to providing an early-warning system, Professor Nazarathy said it could potentially give health authorities more immediate feedback on whether measures were working to contain the virus, with the current lag time around two weeks while the disease is latent.
"At the moment, it’s like trying to fly an airplane while only having sensors that tell you what your speed was two weeks ago," he said.
A system like Safe Blues would be more useful in countries like the United States or many in Europe that have seen a large first wave of the virus, Professor Nazarathy said, but it could still be valuable to Australian health authorities.
"Because the virus appears to have been largely depressed here, it wouldn’t be totally accurate at the moment. For example, over this recent long weekend, Safe Blues would show a number of new cases which we haven’t seen," he said.
"It’s good to have in Australia and New Zealand and other places which have driven down the virus, because if we have a second wave of the virus, there will be immediate indications about how public interactions are taking place."
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