The internet is getting good at tracking deadly viruses, once they emerge. Today’s news is full of interactive charts and infographics charting the spread of swine flu, while flu discussion is today’s first (and second) most popular topic on Twitter. There has already been a minor backlash, with respected journalist Evgeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy writing that swine flu’s infection of Twitter is likely to confuse, rather than inform. But what if the entire approach of relying on the internet to detect, predict and report on pandemics is wrong?
This is the argument put forward by respected author and epidemic expert Mark Honigsbaum in a timely Prospect web exclusive. Honigsbaum notes the rise of fashionable online flu tracking mash-ups, including the Flu Trends site that Google launched in 2008, which give the impression that clever internet technologies can predict, and and thus help prevent, the spread of pandemics. But the spread of swine flu shows the flaws in this logic:
One concern is that they can end up fueling the very anxieties they are supposed to alleviate. Google call this the “Angelina Jolie” effect—“If Angelina has diarrhoea you see a sudden spike in people searching for diarrhoea,” admits Mark Smolinski, the head of Google’s predict and prevent initiative. Equally, if people fear an outbreak of swine flu, and search for it only out of worry, the predictive tool becomes useless. But much more importantly, clever internet sites and search algorithms would have done little to spot a swine flu in Mexico, or many of the other less developed countries where viruses often begin, because few people use the internet. (The current best estimate suggests that the swine flu virus had been circulating in Mexico for a couple of weeks prior to being recognised, at least in part because the Mexican health system is poorly set up to spot emerging pandemics.) The problem with sites like Flu Trends, and similar technology-driven approaches, is that they are necessarily reactive.
Instead Honigsbaum suggests an entirely different approach in which bodies like the World Health Organisation, along with governments with suspect animal populations, invest much more in what he calls “deep viral mining”—going into the jungle and learning about animal viruses before they…