Taking Action

Is data the shepherd for herd immunity?

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Tiago Beck's profile picture
Tiago Beck
Jun 22, 2020

Herd immunity is when a sufficiently high proportion of a population is immune to a disease, and thus form a protective bubble around those not yet resistant. But how is this bubble created? How long will it take? And how many critical cases of COVID19 are we willing to bear before deeming the cost of life greater than the debt to the economy? Now, different countries have their own answers to these questions. Yet, without data, their solutions are often no better than a well-educated guess.  

So let's turn that guess into a clear plan. Up until now, this "invisible enemy" has been spreading both fear and anger throughout the world. It is leaving behind a trail of distraught families, overworked health care professionals, unstable politics, and millions unemployed. Our current measures of #stayhome, mandatory masks, and physical distancing are thankfully proving effective at herding the high-risk group to safety and tending to those already infected. Still, as soon as we open the gates (i.e. reduce restrictions on non-essential businesses), we can see the enemy creeping back in. 

Using data collection to gain clarity

Only by making the invisible enemy visible can we start to generate an intelligent gate. By making COVID19 "visible" I don't mean the physical virus under the microscope; I mean its broader contours, those that cross borders, infiltrate cities and communities, and that disperse within patients. The dynamics of COVID on a personal and interpersonal level is what we really need to understand to be able to guide solutions on local and global levels. And to define these contours - reliably - we need data and lots of it. 

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In our day and age, and more specifically, the current situation, data is worth more than oil (oil price: -$37.63 (Source: Nymex). The value of knowing who is most likely to get sick, how long they will be sick, and how much medical support they will need is priceless. Not only will this knowledge help us understand the virus better, but more importantly, it might allow us to recognise it sooner. We can then quickly identify and protect the high-risk population and potentially counter the negative behaviours currently testing the limits of our health care system. 

The true beauty of data is, however, in its versatility and universality. In this modern-day, our technology has given us the upper hand to not only track and understand this virus, but to utilise and maximise the devices and software we already have. Who knew that your iPhone or Android may even play a fundamental role in the front lines of a pandemic? For example, newly developed user-friendly mobile data collection apps can be downloaded onto your phone and ready to track patient symptoms at the tap of a button. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) sees the potential of these apps. It offers verified Case Report Forms (CRFs) to be integrated and used universally to immediately record patients symptoms at bedside, analyse and visualise the data, and ultimately share it with other researchers, clinicians, or hospitals. 

Our goal is for our collective data to mirror the virus. Once we can accurately record and reflect the incubation periods, symptom progression, and recovery time of COVID19, we can use it to plan for a new “virus-free” future. We can then generate “intelligent” quarantines based on expected incubation, improve patient health with more efficient symptom criteria to the intensive care, and ultimately manage our limited medical resources for a more effective recovery. 

Take Ethiopia for example, it has been regarded as a high-risk country, and with a population of 66,5 million herd immunity would require 39 million to be infected (assuming a required immunity to be 60%). At an expected 3,4% death rate, 132,400 people may lose their life in this pursuit of a safe herd. This number is considering no proper recording or monitoring of the virus. With data, collected and shared within the country, you can isolate clusters of cases before they spread, redirect scarce resources to vulnerable communities, and benefit from reported successful early interventions. In brief, data can save lives. 

Sharing reliable and accurate data on this virus may be the crux to the pandemic. This current crisis is one of the most challenging of our generation, and everyone is affected by it, with some more than others, but precisely this difference between people is what we want to understand. Any delay in defining and decoding this virus is costing valuable time and lives. Simply put, no herd is safe if the shepherd has a blind spot.

Tiago Beck's profile picture

Tiago Beck

As long as I can remember medicine, and in particular neuroscience has been my fascination. I am currently a Research Master of Neuroscience student at the Erasmus Medical University in Rotterdam. I have been exploring countries and medical fields my whole life and it has ultimately lead me to the Netherlands where next to uni, I work as an student researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center and write blogs here and there. And this is just the beginning...

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