A new study of researchers at IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca has found that people were issuing warnings about COVID-19 symptoms well before the pandemic began.

  • The new study — published in “Scientific Reports”discovered concern from people about pneumonia cases beginning at the end of 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic began.
  • The researchers found the posts came precisely from the geographical regions where the primary outbreaks later developed,” according to a press release on the study.
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The researchers created a database of all tweets that used the words “pneumonia” from December 2014 until March 1, 2020, from the seven most spoken languages of the European Union — English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Dutch.

  • The researchers chose “pneumonia” for the study “because the disease is the most severe condition induced by the SARS-CoV-2, and also because the 2020 flu season was milder than the previous ones, so there was no reason to think it to be responsible for all the mentions and worries,” according to a release on the study.

The researchers discovered an increase in tweets about pneumonia in January 2020 — weeks before the first documented cases were announced, according to the release.

  • For example, in Italy, there was an increase of tweets about “pneumonia” in January 2020 compared to the same weeks in 2019. The first COVID-19 infection in Italy was announced on Feb. 20, showing that the tweets came weeks beforehand, according to the release.
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Why it matters

Scientists involved with the study said the new research proves social media can be a good tool to use for discovering potential virus outbreaks.

  • “Our study adds on to the existing evidence that social media can be a useful tool of epidemiological surveillance. They can help intercept the first signs of a new disease, before it proliferates undetected, and also track its spread,” said Massimo Riccaboni, full professor of Economics at the IMT School, who coordinated the research, in a release.