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New Tool Developed by RAND Corp. Uses Air Travel Data to Predict COVID-19 Risk

June 12, 2020 by Dan McCue

A new tool developed by the RAND Corporation analyzes COVID-19 cases and air travel data to predict the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the non-profit think tank, by providing estimates of the number of infected passengers, the tool can help policymakers better respond to the public health threat.

In fact, RAND’s researchers say, the tool has already revealed valuable insights.

The tool, officially, the COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization (CAT-V) tool, suggests that by late January, at least one or more infected passengers per day were likely flying from China to international destinations.

Around this time, they say, it is also likely that the number of cases in China was 37 times higher than reported by Beijing.

The tool also shows that the risk to Gulf Cooperation Council countries was greater from outside the region than from Iran, contradicting common narratives about how the virus was introduced.

It comes up with its results by combining case data from Johns Hopkins University with detailed air travel data from the International Air Transport Association.

The researchers — Russell Hanson, Christopher A. Mouton, Adam R. Grissom, and John P. Godges — say that combining this data makes it possible to visualize how coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections and commercial air travel have interacted to export infection risk across the world.

“Given air travel data and reported infection rates, our tool can also be used to estimate future patterns of COVID-19 transmission. As a result, policymakers, analysts, and others can estimate the impact of travel-related policy interventions, such as restricting air travel from various countries,” the researchers say in a post on the RAND website.

The CAT-V tool offers a “heat map” feature and the ability to visualize the risk associated with individual air travel routes. The tool is currently an internal prototype model being refined for possible public release.

“We will continue to develop and use the CAT-V tool in new ways, and we will continue to release a stream of derivative findings on topics of interest to policymakers,” the researchers say.

In accordance with RAND’s quality assurance standards, the researchers note their analysis is based on the best available data. “However, COVID-19 is an evolving threat, and even the best available data being used by government agencies and research institutes have very significant limitations,” they say.

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