COVID-19: Where to go for reliable and accurate data

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By Dr Agnieszka Chidlow
The Department of Strategy and International Business

As strict lockdown measures are being put in place in countries around the world to minimise the spread and impact of COVID-19 on both health and economic systems, we all closely monitor, compare and contrast the data around the number of deaths, as well as the economic fallout between and within countries using various sources of information on the internet. Regardless of the websites, statistical reports and press releases that we read online, we can all agree that it is truly heart breaking to see the economic impact as well as the number of human lives being lost by an outbreak which within four months developed into a global pandemic.

So, to accurately understand the impact of the pandemic on our lives, here are three things we should consider when reading the COVID-19 data:

  • Are these numbers accurate? More specifically, are they the official figures reported by each country or are they just estimates provided by various sources on the website? If they are the official figures, are they comparable between countries and can they be fully trusted? According to the BBC, for example, ‘China has a bad record on official government numbers that the world believes.’ This is something we should be aware of.
  • Are these numbers reliable? The most reliable figure to compare across countries is deaths per head of population. However, this measure relies on the COVID-19 deaths being accurately identified. Why? Because, questions have been raised as to why Germany’s death rate is so low in comparison to other countries.
  • Are the same testing regimes being followed? This is important as different testing regimes within different countries mean the observed number of cases may be very misleading. For example, the UK initially had only been testing serious cases while South Korea were testing many more. This, in turn, means that death rates are equally misleading when compared across different countries.

With those points in mind, it seems that the most reliable sources of data are those from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC). Such sources act as credible information to many online websites that we come across when quickly browsing the web in search of our own understanding of the rapidly spreading pandemic and its impact on our lives.

  • The WHO publishes daily situation reports about the pandemic using data received by 10 am Central European Time (CET) every day from national authorities of all WHO’s Member States. Such reports are based on the WHO case definition for COVID-19 and provides a thorough picture of the pandemic. What is more, the case definition gives a detailed summary of the guidance used by WHO with regards to the global surveillance for the virus. However, it is worth noting that the guidance itself, according to the organisation, should be read in conjunction with the WHO’s guidance on preparedness, readiness and response as the official country data is subject to re-classification as additional data from other countries becomes available.
  • The ECDC is the European Union’s (EU) agency and it also publishes case-based data on the COVID-19 pandemic. The data not only covers 27 EU Member States but also two European Economic Area (EEA) countries such as Iceland and Norway. What is more, the submission and validation of the data is the responsibility of the European networks of disease experts that are nominated by all Member States and also coordinated by the ECDC itself. The reason for this is to ensure data quality monitoring and evaluation of surveillance systems in EU/EEA in order to provide reliable and timely information for decision-making. In doing so the ECDC developed a handbook on data quality and its application.

An example of a visual illustration of these sources is the interactive dashboard tracking the COVID-19 developed by Professor Lauren Gardner and her graduate student Ensheng Dong from John’s Hopkin’s University, Centre for Systematic Science and Engineering (CSSE). The dashboard is available to all for free and provides a good and reliable visual insight to the fast spreading pandemic in real-time.

To sum this up, no matter whether we seek data to understand the precedented impact the pandemic is rapidly making on our lives or we use the widely accessible numbers on the COVID-19 virus for our research purposes. It is rather important to make sure that we use accurate and reliable information to formulate our understanding, assumptions and modelling. Otherwise, our judgement and evidence might be inaccurate, misleading and lead to more confusion in an already very challenging (global) environment.

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