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Q&A: Tracking the Spread of Infectious Diseases

Feng Qi, Ph.D.

Kean Associate Professor Feng Qi, Ph.D., in the School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, is an expert on geographic information systems used in environmental modeling and public health, including the spread of infectious disease. Kean News talked to her about the spread of COVID-19 and steps to mitigate it around the world.

Q.You received  a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant a few years ago to study flu transmission. What have you learned that can be applied to COVID-19?

My research used tracking technology to capture human movement trajectories, and analyzed data to study infectious disease transmission patterns. Influenza and COVID-19 share many similarities in terms of transmission. Both spread person-to-person, via mostly direct contact, but also indirect contact. The difference lies in the strength of transmission, determined by how long viruses survive outside the human body on different carrying media, and how susceptible humans are to be infected upon contact.

Flu and COVID-19 have different R0s (basic reproduction number). The flu has an R0 of 1.3, which means that on average, a single infected person can spread it to 1.3 other people. Scientists have not yet had a final estimation of the R0 for COVID-19, but a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February estimated it between 2 and 3, while more recent studies indicated it could be even higher. In addition, data has also indicated COVID-19 has a higher mortality rate. 

Q. How can geospatial tracking be used to control or stop the virus?

Data scientists and geospatial modelers in my research area are developing models to make predictions and test different control and containment strategies.

Scientists from the University of Wisconsin have used data modeling to demonstrate how inter-city or inter-state population mobility control strategies are not as effective as extensive testing strategies. Looking ahead to more businesses opening, tracking technologies could be used to help identify close contacts of infected individuals for effective social intervention. Both South Korea and Singapore have used such technology against this virus. 

This is also related to my flu study. Five years ago, I submitted a proposal to the NIH, together with collaborators from Wuhan (our school has collaborated with Central China Normal University in Wuhan for a number of years), the University of Florida, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The proposal was to use tracking technology and Bluetooth sensors in mobile devices to measure the proximity between individuals and identify close contacts within the attacking range of viruses for prevention, warning, containment, and control of influenza outbreaks. Unfortunately, the proposal was not funded. 

The geospatial community is actively engaged in related studies during this current pandemic. I was happy to see that Apple and Google are stepping forward using Bluetooth technology for COVID-19 contact tracing, very similar to the idea we proposed a few years ago. We hope data accuracy and privacy issues related to the use of such technology can be properly addressed, and it could help mitigate the outbreak.

Q: What privacy issues are there, and how should they be addressed?

For tracing contacts, users need to share their location data for a long time period, 14 days for example. This is a privacy concern to many. I have been checking progress from Google and Apple on their Bluetooth technology and protocols. It seems that they are addressing the privacy issue in four aspects:

  1. No GPS locations are used, only proximity data with Bluetooth.
  2. No identification is associated with the position data, only anonymous identifiers are associated with the signals.
  3. Data is volunteered only, that is, a user chooses to install the app and share the information voluntarily.
  4. There is no centralized storage and processing of the proximity data. Decentralized processing of data grants no authority the ability to use the data for any other analysis purposes.

This protocol is currently well accepted by users in Europe. 

Q. What do you think will happen going forward with COVID-19? Will there be another wave of deaths? 

Many scientists model a second wave in the fall. With our medical and general knowledge of this virus accumulating, I am optimistic that the damage from the second wave, if there is one, will be much less than this first wave. 

Q. Why are you optimistic about the fall?

We are accumulating valuable knowledge regarding not only the transmission of this virus but the pathology and other aspects of the virus. Scientists are discovering drugs, antibodies, and potential vaccines. Also, the general public has gained tremendous knowledge about this virus and the social distancing effects. So from all aspects, it will not hit us as badly as when we had zero knowledge and experience with it. 

Q. What steps can or should be taken now to stop the transmission of COVID-19?

One step is extensive testing. Social distancing protocols should continue for a little longer, as the U.S. has not done extensive testing. The effect of contact tracing technology depends on a large user base, so participation by the public is important. One other important step, of course, is the development of treatments through new drugs or repurposing old drugs, as well as vaccinations. Scientists are working hard on these.