Could Google help predict coronavirus outbreaks? Online searches for nausea and other GI symptoms of COVID-19 spike for four weeks before an uptick in cases
- Researchers looked at Google searches for gastrointestinal symptoms of coronavirus in 15 states between January 20 and April 20
- Search terms included loss of tase, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, anorexia diarrhea and vomiting
- Increases in online searches were seen four weeks before a spike in COVID-19 cases
- Ageusia was linked to an increase in cases in five states with the highest incidence early on in the pandemic including California and New York
An increase in online searches for coronavirus symptoms may predict future hotspots, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that reading about gastrointestinal signs of COVID-19 such as vomiting, diarrhea and loss of taste spiked about four weeks before an uptick in cases.
This was most prominent in states that had the highest number of states early on in the pandemic such as California, New Jersey and New York.
The team, from Massachusetts General Hospital and North Shore Medical Center, in Salem, Massachusetts, says the findings show how tools such as Google Trends can help ‘estimate the popularity of a certain disease by search volume over time.’
A new study found an increase in online searches of GI coronavirus symptoms was seen four weeks before a spike in COVID-19 cases (above)
Ageusia, which is loss of tastate, was linked to an increase in cases in five states with the highest incidence early on in the pandemic including California and New York (file image)
For the study, published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, the team used Google Trends to look at searchers in GI symptoms of COVID-19 along with data from Harvard Dataverse.
Data was examined from 15 states – Alabama, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wyoming from January 20 to April 20, 2020.
States were split into three categories: high incidence states; median insistence states; and low incidence states.
Common GI symptoms attributed to COVID-19 included search terms for ageusia – loss of taste- abdominal pain, loss of appetite, anorexia, diarrhea and vomiting.
‘Searches for GI symptoms preceded the rise in reported COVID-19 in a predictable fashion,’ the authors wrote.
‘Google search interest in ageusia, loss of appetite, and diarrhea increased 4 weeks prior to the rise in COVID-19 cases for most states.’
Specifically, the GI symptom searchers were linked to incidence of COVID-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic in the states with the most cases: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
In median incidence states, searches for ageusia were only significantly linked to a higher number of cases after four weeks in two of five states.
In the low-incidence states, the two were associated in one of five states.
Prior studies have shown a one- to two-week lag time from online searches for flu symptoms a spike in influenza searches.
Researchers say this could be due to ‘differences in testing availability, reporting, or longer incubation period of COVID-19 compared with Influenza.’
The team says Google Trends is ‘not an epidemiological tool’ but that it can help ‘estiamte the popularity of a certain disease by search volume over time.’
‘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,’ they wrote.