The year is about to end, but the pandemic remains a big concern across the world. Even if some countries have reported success in their fight against SARS-CoV-2, cases will likely surge as winter approaches. Even though the recent announcement from Pfizer regarding the favourable results from its coronavirus vaccine trials gives people hope, transmissions still need to be controlled. Researchers are reportedly working on a computer model that draws data from smartphones to monitor the disease's spread across the United States.

Two teams from Northwestern University and Stanford University respectively, have developed a system that should allow them to predict which city will probably see an increase of COVID-19 cases. It will gather data from approximately 98 million Americans that reside in 10 major cities to analyse which areas are prone to another outbreak.

The researchers published their paper in Nature, which indicates they have taken into account places where people regularly gather in significant numbers. Among those identified are gyms and restaurants that are now operating at close to full capacity even with the pandemic still far from over. Earlier this year, top experts already predicted that the number of cases will potentially rise due to several factors.

Businesses and local authorities are having difficulty making decisions not resulting in economic losses. Ph.D. student at Stanford University and co-author of the research paper Serina Change stated: "What our model can do is start to inform the public and policymakers on where we fall on this tradeoff, and how many visits and how many infections would occur at each level of reopening."

"Reopening fully is quite dangerous, but there's a lot we can do in between reopening fully and shutting down," she added. "It doesn't have to be all or nothing." So far, the results support previous findings wherein establishments that operated at 20 percent of their capacity can prevent infections by up to 80 percent.

It appears that the ultimate goal is to target areas and groups which are deemed at risk of another outbreak, which they call "super-spreader sites." To address privacy concerns, they have tapped the services a company called SafeGraph, which keeps all data anonymous before it is handed over to researchers. The details include the locations individuals have visited and the duration of their stay in said places.

Medical staff treats coronavirus patients
Medical staff treats a patient suffering from coronavirus in intensive care at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on November 10, 2020. Photo: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Go Nakamura