Methods from weather forecasting can be adapted to assess risk of COVID-19 exposure: A more granular understanding of risk could reduce the need for widespread lockdowns during an epidemic

Techniques used in weather forecasting can be repurposed to provide individuals with a personalized assessment of their risk of exposure to COVID-19 or other viruses, according to new research published by Caltech scientists.

The technique has the potential to be more effective and less intrusive than blanket lockdowns for combatting the spread of disease, says Tapio Schneider, the Theodore Y. Wu Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering; senior research scientist at JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA; and the lead author of a study on the new research that was published by PLOS Computational Biology on June 23.

“For this pandemic, it may be too late,” Schneider says, “but this is not going to be the last epidemic that we will face. This is useful for tracking other infectious diseases, too.”

In principle, the idea is simple: Weather forecasting models ingest a lot of data — for example, measurements of wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity from local weather stations, in addition to satellite data. They use the data to assess what the current state of the atmosphere is, forecast the weather evolution into the future, and then repeat the cycle by blending the forecast atmospheric state with new data. In the same way, disease risk assessment also harnesses various types of available data to make an assessment about an individual’s risk of exposure to or infection with disease, forecasts the spread of disease across a network of human contacts using an epidemiological model, and then repeats the cycle by blending the forecast with new data. Such assessments might use the results of an institution’s surveillance testing, data from wearable sensors, self-reported symptoms and close contacts as recorded by smartphones, and municipalities’ disease-reporting dashboards.

The research presented in PLOS Computational Biology is proof of concept. However, its end result would be a smart phone app that would provide an individual with a frequently updated numerical assessment (i.e., a percentage) that reflects their likelihood of having been exposed to or infected with a particular infectious disease agent, such as COVID-19.

Such an app would be similar to existing COVID-19 exposure notification apps but more sophisticated and effective in its use of data, Schneider and his colleagues say. Those apps provide a binary exposure assessment (“yes, you have been exposed,” or, in the case of no exposure, radio silence); the new app described in the study would provide a more nuanced understanding of continually changing risks of exposure and infection as individuals come close to others and as data about infections is propagated across a continually evolving contact network.

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