‘Pneumonia’ Tweets Predicted Sites of Early EU Outbreaks | Nutrition Fit

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An unusually large number of people in Europe mentioned “pneumonia” on social media before the first known cases of COVID-19 were announced there, according to a study published online in Scientific Reports

The messages may have been an early indication of the spread of disease, and their geographic distribution matches areas of early COVID-19 outbreaks, the researchers said.

“We have analyzed data from Twitter across a number of European countries to show that unexpected levels of concerns about pneumonia had been raised for several weeks before the first cases of infection were officially announced,” write Milena Lopreite, PhD, Department of Economics, Statistics and Finance, University of Calabria, Calabria, Italy, and colleagues. “Interestingly, we also show that whistleblowing came primarily from the geographical regions that turned out to be the key breeding grounds for infections.”

“Our study adds on to the existing evidence that social media can be a useful tool of epidemiological surveillance,” said senior author Massimo Riccaboni, PhD, a professor of economics at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, in Lucca, Italy, in a news release. “They can help intercept the first signs of a new disease, before it proliferates undetected, and also track its spread.”

Seven Languages

For their study, the investigators created a database of messages containing the keyword “pneumonia” in seven common languages of the European Union — English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Dutch — from December 2014 until March 2020. They made adjustments and corrections to avoid overestimating the number of tweets mentioning pneumonia after the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified about the first cases of “pneumonia of unknown etiology” on December 31, 2019, such as by omitting tweets with links to media coverage of the emerging pandemic, tweets that mentioned China, and those that included the term “coronavirus.”

One analysis compared thousands of tweets posted between December 15, 2019, and January 21, 2020 — when the WHO recognized COVID-19 as a class B notifiable disease — with tweets posted during the same timeframe the previous year.

The data suggest that “with the exception of Germany, the distributions in the two winter seasons are statistically different for all countries” included in the analysis, the authors say. Comparisons to winter seasons back to 2014 yielded similar results.

In Italy, where officials introduced lockdown measures on February 22, 2020, the rate of mentions of pneumonia during the first few weeks of 2020 differed substantially from the rate in 2019. “France exhibited a similar pattern, whereas Spain, Poland and the UK witnessed a delay of 2 weeks,” the authors write. Furthermore, most users who discussed pneumonia “came precisely from the regions, such as Lombardy, Madrid, Île de France and England, that eventually reported early cases of the COVID-19 contagion.”

When the researchers considered tweets that mentioned another common symptom associated with COVID-19, dry cough, they again found an increase relative to prior years.

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Sci Rep. Published online January 25, 2021. Full text

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