Consumers ‘pay more attention’ to ads next to coronavirus news content

An increasing number of marketers are pulling back from advertising around news related to the coronavirus outbreak, yet there is evidence to suggest they should in fact be seeking it out.

Words relating to the Covid-19 pandemic have fast risen up brands’ keyword blacklists, yet there is evidence to suggest they should actually be actively placing ads next to coronavirus-related content.

It will come as no surprise that people are paying more attention to the news in the current climate, with national and regional publishers seeing record numbers of digital readers. But people are also paying significantly more attention to the advertising around it.

According to eye-tracking specialists Lumen, print advertising is currently generating 21% more attention than the norm for the medium. Some 88% of press ads run during the week of 18 to 25 March were viewed compared with an average view rate of 75%. Two-thirds (66%) of viewable digital ads were noticed compared with an average of 55% for desktop digital tests conducted in the past six months.

“It’s not that you should be doing ads and avoiding coronavirus, it’s the other way round,” says Lumen’s managing director, Mike Follett.

“There is this general belief that you don’t want to have your ads next to any form of controversial content. Brands become tremendously worried about the juxtaposition of those, and this is just another thing they want to block. The blacklists in this sense should be reversed. What [brands] should be doing is not blocking that stuff but searching it out.”

Advertising attention on the up

Dwell time – the amount of time spent actually looking at the ads – has also remained relatively strong. The average dwell time with digital ads in tests run last month was 1.5 seconds, slightly down from the Lumen average of 1.9 seconds. Dwell time with print advertising, meanwhile, increased slightly from 2.1 seconds to 2.2 seconds.

These two metrics can be combined into a single number that estimates the total aggregate attention an ad will receive per 1,000 impressions, known as ‘attentive seconds per 1000 impressions’. This reveals a slight dip in aggregate attention to digital advertising, but a dramatic increase in attention to print advertising.

Lumen estimates advertisers and media agencies could expect to generate around 1,600 second of attention per 1,000 print impressions usually. In the test period, 1,000 newspaper impressions would generate an average of 1,936 attentive seconds, an increase of 21%.

The discrepancy between the performance of print and digital advertising can, in part, be traced to the impact of interest in coronavirus. Some 60% of the press ads tested were sited next to news stories about coronavirus, while only 23% of the digital ads tested in the period were sited next to coronavirus-related content online.

What is clear, however, is that the analysis of the attention patterns within newspapers shows that the ads that appeared closest to coronavirus content outperformed ads next to other subjects.

“People are still engaging with advertising and even more than ever, so you’re going to get more bang for your buck from pretty much any form of advertising at the moment,” Follett explains.

“People look at ads in proportion to how much they engage with the editorial. The more people engage with the articles or social content, the more they engage with the ads. People are engaging more with coronavirus-related content than anything else and therefore they are engaging more with the ads around that.”

While the research can’t decipher whether the engagement is positive or negative, a  recent investigation into the impact of ‘hard news’ on advertising responses suggests hard news has no negative impact on advertising content, responses to ads or brands.

According to the Newsworks and Neuro-Insight study, the average ad dwell time is 1.4 times higher in a hard news environment (45 seconds versus 32 seconds).

Ads in both hard and soft news environments were found to deliver strong engagement (personal relevance), emotional intensity and, importantly, elicit strong levels of memory encoding.


We are experiencing unprecedented events as the COVID-19 virus devastates the economy and healthcare systems. It is a human tragedy, the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly a century.

Over the span of several weeks, entire industries have shuttered. Unemployment skyrocketed with a record  10 million  Americans filing for benefits over two weeks. Nearly everyone who can is working remotely , with some adapting to the lifestyle for the first time.

As a leader, you not only have the health of your family to worry about, but you also have the health of your business and your employees top of mind. As we watch the dire headlines, it is imperative not to panic. While it’s tempting to make drastic cost cuts such as layoffs to buoy the bottom line, these offer a temporary relief that may or may not ensure your company survives. 

Every situation is unique, and some of the following options will not apply. But if possible, there are other steps you can consider before making those difficult decisions. If you refocus your strategy, invest in marketing to your loyal customers, and take care of yourself and your team, you may find ways to navigate this turbulent time.

Marketing is still vitally important

As leaders search for ways to tighten budgets, be wary of cutting too much from marketing. With the  Consumer Confidence Index dropping , it’s more important than ever to be a trusted brand that is attuned to your customers’ needs. 

Understanding your customers will involve more market research as your  market segmentation  strategy changes. Before the COVID-19 crisis, you may have segmented your customers based on lifestyle or demographics; now, you should reconsider through the lens of psychology.

How are your customers reacting emotionally to the changes happening around them? How does it impact their behavior as a consumer? 

Harvard Business Review  broke down common consumer behavior during economic downturns into these four segments:

  1. Slam on the brakes: This segment is extremely anxious about the future and tries not to spend any money.
  2. Pained, but patient: The largest segment, these consumers remain optimistic about the long-term future, but wary of the near future. They are careful with their money. Often, this segment includes households untouched by unemployment. As news gets worse, they may move into the slam-on-the-brakes segment. 
  3. Comfortably well-off: Primarily people in the 5% income bracket or those comfortably retired, this group may be slightly more selective in how they spend money, but overall they still consume quite a bit. They feel secure about their ability to ride this out.
  4. Live for today: Typically urban and younger, this segment does not save much and will continue consuming as they normally would. They may hold off on any major purchases, but for the most part they remain unconcerned and their behavior won’t change unless they become unemployed.

HBR also breaks down the different types of products and services that people consume by need:

  • Essentials: purchases necessary for survival
  • Treats: indulgences whose immediate purchase is considered justifiable
  • Postponables: needed/desire items that can be reasonably put off
  • Expendables: purchases perceived as unnecessary or unjustifiable 

In these strange times, anything involving human contact is considered expendable. How can you pivot to offer what consumers see as essentials or treats?

This is where market research is critical. Invest in gathering data on your customers’ behavioral trends. Analytics such as which product has decreased the most in sales and who is most active on which channels are valuable insights. Findings from polls and surveys, which are low-cost options, will also help you better understand what your customers need. 

Stay loyal to your brand 

Everyone will most likely have to make cuts, but try not to sacrifice your company’s values or value proposition. 

For example, if you’re a luxury brand and you slash prices dramatically, you may see an influx of purchases at first. But eventually, you’ll realize you alienated your core customer group that was loyal to you for what you symbolized before this crisis. That can be crippling long-term. 

Triage your current products and services. With your customers’ psychological market segments in mind, ask yourself: which of these products will flourish, which won’t survive, and which will suffer but eventually stabilize? 

Salesforce is a success story entirely built on staying loyal to its brand and its customers. 

In 2005, Salesforce was an innovative leader in the  CRM space , but few knew it was debilitated by an  8% monthly churn rate . For reference, the average churn rate for SaaS companies is about  4.8% monthly . If it didn’t stop the leak, Salesforce would sink. 

Realizing that retaining customers had to become as important as winning new ones, Salesforce adopted customer success as one of its core values: “our customers’ success is our success.” 

Despite the Great Recession, Salesforce grew its revenue from $497 million in fiscal 2007 to nearly  $1.1 billion in fiscal 2009 . 

How? Salesforce did not stray from its core values despite the frightening economic climate. The focus on an excellent customer experience, regardless of the size of the deal, paid off big.

They did their market research, paid close attention to their customers, and provided what customers needed. Prospects saw the great experience Salesforce customers received and wanted in on it.

There’s only one Salesforce, but the lesson here is: if you remain loyal to your brand and your customers, you will most likely see some level of success, too.

Refocus and pivot

As scary as it is, you’ll need to abandon your previous criteria for success. Those goals just aren’t feasible anymore, and the sooner your team recognizes that, the better. You made them in an environment that no longer exists, and this economic downturn may last a long time.

Be honest with yourself in setting new, attainable goals in the current climate. Based on those goals, you’ll know what needs to be rearranged in regards to strategy and budget. 

Make sure you are keeping a pulse on the current realities. With everyone social distancing inside, it doesn’t make any sense to fund certain types of marketing. Event, field, and experiential marketing are not feasible in this environment. 

That said, that money and effort can be reallocated to the types of media people will be consuming at home, which are primarily social media, broadcast, and content marketing. 

If possible, maintain or increase your advertising budget on these types of media. When looking at over a century of data on how companies that advertise during economic downturns perform compared to how companies that do not advertise, the results are clear: advertising pays off. 

Even while you refocus and pivot, you should adopt a future-back strategy. What do you want the company to look like at the end of this economic downturn? Three years from this economic downturn? As best you can, try to make decisions with that vision in mind.

Be mindful

What is happening right now is a human tragedy. 

We cannot forget the human element of this – the trauma, the grief. It’s so important to be mindful and to follow these three pillars of strength.

Take care of your customers. Right now many people value affordability, connection, and safety. As a brand, as a human, ask yourself how you can help. Do away with penalty and adoption charges. Offer new subscription options or unbundle your offerings so people can pick and choose. Send thoughtful messaging in your email newsletters and on your social media accounts. 

A great example of putting your customers first during difficult times is Hyundai’s Assurance program during the 2008 recession. It provided customers the opportunity to return a purchased or leased car if they lost their income within a year of sale.

Take care of your team. Let them know you think of them all the time. Be as transparent with them as possible in regards to the business’ health – they deserve that. And if you have to make the tough, heart-wrenching decision to let part of your team go, it’s crucial your remaining team members feel you’re full of love and care for their well-being.

Take care of yourself. As an entrepreneur and CEO, this is Godard’s biggest piece of advice to other leaders because it is often easy to overlook. Be in tune with how you’re doing mentally, physically, and spiritually. It’s important to be more present and conscious than ever.

We can do this

The COVID-19 crisis will change the world as we know it. How exactly remains to be seen, but we are all in this together, as professionals and as a community. 

There’s no doubt that difficult times are ahead of us. While this article is optimistic, this downturn is unlike any other we’ve experienced in recent history and can only be compared to the past so much. 



How to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus When Grocery Shopping

Here are the precautions to take, whether you shop in-store or online

By Tobie Stanger

 With experts saying to avoid crowded places because of the novel coronavirus, what should you do about grocery shopping? One option people are turning to is grocery delivery services.

Instacart, one of the largest grocery delivery services, told us that over the past week its subscription growth swelled tenfold. In California, Washington, and New York—states where to date the most coronavirus cases have been reported—Instacart has seen a twentyfold growth.

“For older people and those with underlying health conditions—the group that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends stay home—I would highly recommend using a grocery delivery service,” says Jim Rogers, CR’s director of food safety research and testing.

But whether you buy groceries online or in stores, there are some simple steps you can take to try to limit your exposure to the novel coronavirus, and they’re not so different from what CR recommends you typically do. Be sure to:

Wash nonporous containers. Use dish soap on plastic, glass, and metal before putting them away. Simple rubbing with soap and water can kill the coronavirus because it tears apart the virus’s outer barrier.

Wash your hands, counter, and other surfaces you’ve touched. Do this after you’ve put away the groceries. Keep in mind that using disinfectant isn’t necessary unless you’re sharing a space with someone who is exhibiting signs of respiratory illness or has been exposed to the virus.

Wash produce with running water. There’s no data to show that washing fruits and vegetables with soap will do a better job of eliminating coronavirus—or, more to the point, that the virus is spread by consuming those foods, Rogers says. But rubbing fruits and vegetables under running water—and scrubbing those with hard skins—can help remove pesticides.

Other steps may not make much difference. For instance, buying frozen vegetables rather than fresh under the assumption that they’re packed in a more sanitary way hasn’t been backed up by evidence, Rogers says.

If You’re Getting Your Groceries Delivered

Even if a grocery store or warehouse is thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis, the delivery person needs to take the same precautions to prevent the spread of a virus to you. Among the six services in our recent review of grocery delivery-services, AmazonFresh, Amazon Prime Now, Instacart, and Shipt all employ independent contractors for deliveries. (FreshDirect and Peapod delivery personnel are company employees; Walmart, which was not part of our ratings, uses DoorDash for deliveries.)

So while those companies may highly recommend that deliverers wash their hands often, practice other hygiene measures, and stay home when they’re feeling sick, they can’t monitor whether drivers are actually taking those precautions, says Erin Hatton, an associate professor of sociology and labor scholar at the University of Buffalo. “And without paid sick leave, workers are going to try to push through as much as they can,” Hatton says.

That said, follow these steps when ordering deliveries:

Avoid a direct hand-off. Arrange to have the items delivered to your doorstep or a place nearby instead. Instacart added that option last week; other companies have places on their order forms where you can indicate special delivery instructions. FreshDirect says its drivers will no longer bring your groceries into your home.

Tip electronically. One benefit of ordering deliveries online or via an app is that you don’t have to hand the delivery person money. Opportunities to tip the delivery person are included in most of the delivery apps and online ordering systems.

Order earlier than you normally do. Though it’s not a safety issue, you may find that in the midst of higher demand, you have to wait longer than normal. FreshDirect, for instance, mentions on its home page that delivery times are filling up faster than usual. AmazonPrime Now, which chiefly delivers from Whole Foods, also mentions that “availability may be limited,” though it’s not clear whether that means delivery times are limited or items are limited, or both. (An Amazon representative did not respond to a request for comment.)

If You’re Picking Up Prepacked Groceries

The steps are basically the same for this option as for delivery. If you’ve ordered in advance and are merely having someone put the groceries in your car in the parking lot—an option at around 3,000 Walmart locations nationwide—consider opening your car door yourself rather than having the person bringing the items to your car touch the handles. And if you can tip on the supermarket’s app, do so rather than handing over cash. (Walmart’s employees aren’t permitted to take tips.)
If You’re Buying Groceries In-Store
A key way to prevent the virus’s spread is to stay 6 feet away from other people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that’s generally the distance within which people pick up coronavirus droplets through the air from a cough or sneeze. Such “social distancing” is a good strategy in any situation outside the home, Rogers suggests. Other ideas:

Go shopping at a time that’s less busy. If you type in the store’s name and location in Google search, a box often will pop up showing when foot traffic there is highest.

Take germicide with you. Use it to wipe your hands and the cart—both before and after you shop.

Use a credit or debit card. That way, you don’t have to hand over bills or receive change. Also, use your own pen to sign receipts. If you can, use a virtual payment system like Apple Pay so that you don’t have to open your wallet at all.


Deadly viruses are no match for plain, old soap — here’s the science behind it

Soap works better than alcohol and disinfectants at destroying the structure of viruses

his is how soap removes dirt, and bacteria, from the skin. Palli Thordarson

Why does soap work so well on the new coronavirus and, indeed, most viruses? Because it is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer.

That sounds scientific. Let me explain.

Soap dissolves the fat membrane, and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and “dies,” or rather, it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive. Viruses can be active outside the body for hours, even days.

Disinfectants, or liquids, wipes, gels and creams containing alcohol (and soap) have a similar effect but are not as good as regular soap. Apart from alcohol and soap, antibacterial agents in those products don’t affect the virus structure much. Consequently, many antibacterial products are basically just an expensive version of soap in how they act on viruses. Soap is the best, but alcohol wipes are good when soap is not practical or handy, for example in office reception areas.

Soap outcompetes the interactions between the virus and the skin surface, and the virus gets detached and falls apart like a house of cards.

Supramolecular chemistry

But why, exactly, is soap so good? To explain that, I will take you through a journey of supramolecular chemistry, nanoscience and virology. I will try to explain this in generic terms, which means leaving out special chemistry terms. (I must point out that, while I am an expert in supramolecular chemistry and the assembly of nanoparticles, I am not a virologist.)

I have always been fascinated by viruses, as I see them as one of them most spectacular examples of how supramolecular chemistry and nanoscience converge.

Most viruses consist of three key building blocks: RNA, proteins and lipids.The RNA is the viral genetic material — it is similar to DNA. The proteins have several roles, including breaking into the target cell, assisting with virus replication and basically being a key building block (like a brick in a house) in the virus structure.

The lipids then form a coat around the virus, both for protection and to assist with its spread and cellular invasion. The RNA, proteins and lipids self-assemble to form the virus. Critically, there are no strong “covalent” bonds holding these units together.

Instead, the viral self-assembly is based on weak “non-covalent” interactions between the proteins, RNA and lipids. Together, these act together like Velcro, so it is hard to break up the self-assembled viral particle. Still, we can do it — with soap!

Most viruses, including the coronavirus, are between 50-200 nanometers — so they truly are nanoparticles. Nanoparticles have complex interactions with surfaces they are on; it’s the same with viruses. Skin, steel, timber, fabric, paint and porcelain are very different surfaces.

When a virus invades a cell, the RNA “hijacks” the cellular machinery like a computer virus and forces the cell to make fresh copies of its own RNA and the various proteins that make up the virus.

These new RNA and protein molecules self-assemble with lipids (readily present in the cell) to form new copies of the virus. That is, the virus does not photocopy itself; it makes copies of the building blocks, which then self-assemble into new viruses.

All those new viruses eventually overwhelm the cell, and it dies or explodes, releasing viruses that then go on to infect more cells. In the lungs, viruses end up in the airways and mucous membranes.

When you cough, or especially when you sneeze, tiny droplets from the airways can fly up to 30 feet. The larger ones are thought to be main coronavirus carriers, and they can go at least 7 feet. So, cover your coughs and sneezes!

Skin is an ideal surface for viruses

These tiny droplets end up on surfaces and dry out quickly. But the viruses are still active. What happens next is all about supramolecular chemistry and how self-assembled nanoparticles (like the viruses) interact with their environment.

Now it is time to introduce a powerful supramolecular chemistry concept that effectively says: Similar molecules appear to interact more strongly with each other than dissimilar ones. Wood, fabric and skin interact fairly strongly with viruses.

Contrast this with steel, porcelain and at least some plastics, such as Teflon. The surface structure also matters. The flatter the surface, the less the virus will “stick” to the surface. Rougher surfaces can actually pull the virus apart.

So why are surfaces different? The virus is held together by a combination of hydrogen bonds (like those in water) and hydrophilic, or “fat-like,” interactions. The surface of fibers or wood, for instance, can form a lot of hydrogen bonds with the virus.

In contrast, steel, porcelain or Teflon do not form much of a hydrogen bond with the virus. So the virus is not strongly bound to those surfaces and is quite stable.

For how long does the virus stay active? It depends. The novel coronavirus is thought to stay active on favorable surfaces for hours, possibly a day. What makes the virus less stable? Moisture (“dissolves”), sunlight (UV light) and heat (molecular motions).

The skin is an ideal surface for a virus. It is organic, of course, and the proteins and fatty acids in the dead cells on the surface interact with the virus through both hydrogen bonds and the “fat-like” hydrophilic interactions.

So when you touch a steel surface with a virus particle on it, it will stick to your skin and, hence, get transferred on to your hands. But you are not (yet) infected. If you touch your face, though, the virus can get transferred.

And now the virus is dangerously close to the airways and the mucus-type membranes in and around your mouth and eyes. So the virus can get in and — voila! — you are infected. That is, unless your immune system kills the virus.

If the virus is on your hands, you can pass it on by shaking someone’s else hand. Kisses, well, that’s pretty obvious. It goes without saying that if someone sneezes in your face, you’re stuck.

So how often do you touch your face? It turns out most people touch the face once every two to five minutes. So you’re at high risk once the virus gets on your hands, unless you wash off the active virus.

So let’s try washing it off with plain water. It might just work. But water “only” competes with the strong “glue-like” interactions between the skin and virus via hydrogen bonds. The virus is sticky and may not budge. Water isn’t enough.

Soap dissolves a virus’ structure

Soapy water is totally different. Soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles, some structurally similar to the lipids in the virus membrane. The soap molecules “compete” with the lipids in the virus membrane. That is more or less how soap also removes normal dirt of the skin (see graphic at the top of this article).

The soap molecules also compete with a lot other non-covalent bonds that help the proteins, RNA and the lipids to stick together. The soap is effectively “dissolving” the glue that holds the virus together. Add to that all the water.

The soap also outcompetes the interactions between the virus and the skin surface. Soon the virus gets detached and falls apart like a house of cards due to the combined action of the soap and water. Boom, the virus is gone!

The skin is rough and wrinkly, which is why you need a fair amount of rubbing and soaking to ensure the soap reaches every nook and cranny on the skin surface that could be hiding active viruses.

Alcohol-based products include all “disinfectants” and “antibacterial” products that contain a high share of alcohol solution, typically 60%-80% ethanol, sometimes with a bit of isopropanol, water and a bit of soap.

Ethanol and other types of alcohol do not only readily form hydrogen bonds with the virus material but, as a solvent, are more lipophilic than water. Hence, alcohol does dissolve the lipid membrane and disrupt other supramolecular interactions in the virus.

However, you need a fairly high concentration (maybe 60%-plus) of the alcohol to get a rapid dissolution of the virus. Vodka or whiskey (usually 40% ethanol) won’t dissolve the virus as quickly. Overall, alcohol is not as good as soap at this task.

Nearly all antibacterial products contain alcohol and some soap, and that does help kill viruses. But some also include “active” bacterial killing agents, such as triclosan. Those, however, do basically nothing to the virus.

Alcohol works — to a degree

To sum up, viruses are almost like grease-nanoparticles. They can stay active for many hours on surfaces and then get picked up by touch. Then they get to our face and infect us because most of us touch our face frequently.

Water is not effective alone in washing the virus off our hands. Alcohol-based products work better. But nothing beats soap — the virus detaches from the skin and falls apart readily in soapy water.

Supramolecular chemistry and nanoscience tell us not only a lot about how the virus self-assembles into a functional, active menace, but also how we can beat viruses with something as simple as soap.


How AI Helped Predict the Coronavirus Outbreak Before It Happened

Coronavirus has been all over the news for the last couple weeks. A dedicated hospital sprang up in just eight days, the stock market took a hit, Chinese New Year celebrations were spoiled, and travel restrictions are in effect.

But let’s rewind a bit; some crucial events took place before we got to this point.

A little under two weeks before the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted the public of the coronavirus outbreak, a Canadian artificial intelligence company was already sounding the alarm. BlueDot uses AI-powered algorithms to analyze information from a multitude of sources to identify disease outbreaks and forecast how they may spread. On December 31st 2019, the company sent out a warning to its customers to avoid Wuhan, where the virus originated. The WHO didn’t send out a similar public notice until January 9th, 2020.

The story of BlueDot’s early warning is the latest example of how AI can improve our identification of and response to new virus outbreaks.

Predictions Are Bad News

Global pandemic or relatively minor scare? The jury is still out on the coronavirus. However, the math points to signs that the worst is yet to come.

Scientists are still working to determine how infectious the virus is. Initial analysis suggests it may be somewhere between influenza and polio on the virus reproduction number scale, which indicates how many new cases one case leads to.

UK and US-based researchers have published a preliminary paper estimating that the confirmed infected people in Wuhan only represent five percent of those who are actually infected. If the models are correct, 190,000 people in Wuhan will be infected by now, major Chinese cities are on the cusp of large-scale outbreaks, and the virus will continue to spread to other countries.

Finding the Start

The spread of a given virus is partly linked to how long it remains undetected. Identifying a new virus is the first step towards mobilizing a response and, in time, creating a vaccine. Warning at-risk populations as quickly as possible also helps with limiting the spread.

These are among the reasons why BlueDot’s achievement is important in and of itself. Furthermore, it illustrates how AIs can sift through vast troves of data to identify ongoing virus outbreaks.

BlueDot uses natural language processing and machine learning to scour a variety of information sources, including chomping through 100,000 news reports in 65 languages a day. Data is compared with flight records to help predict virus outbreak patterns. Once the automated data sifting is completed, epidemiologists check that the findings make sense from a scientific standpoint, and reports are sent to BlueDot’s customers, which include governments, businesses, and public health organizations.

AI for Virus Detection and Prevention

Other companies, such as Metabiota, are also using data-driven approaches to track the spread of the likes of the coronavirus.

Researchers have trained neural networks to predict the spread of infectious diseases in real time. Others are using AI algorithms to identify how preventive measures can have the greatest effect. AI is also being used to create new drugs, which we may well see repeated for the coronavirus.

If the work of scientists Barbara Han and David Redding comes to fruition, AI and machine learning may even help us predict where virus outbreaks are likely to strike – before they do.

The Uncertainty Factor

One of AI’s core strengths when working on identifying and limiting the effects of virus outbreaks is its incredibly insistent nature. AIs never tire, can sift through enormous amounts of data, and identify possible correlations and causations that humans can’t.

However, there are limits to AI’s ability to both identify virus outbreaks and predict how they will spread. Perhaps the best-known example comes from the neighboring field of big data analytics. At its launch, Google Flu Trends was heralded as a great leap forward in relation to identifying and estimating the spread of the flu—until it underestimated the 2013 flu season by a whopping 140 percent and was quietly put to rest.

Poor data quality was identified as one of the main reasons Google Flu Trends failed. Unreliable or faulty data can wreak havoc on the prediction power of AIs.

In our increasingly interconnected world, tracking the movements of potentially infected individuals (by car, trains, buses, or planes) is just one vector surrounded by a lot of uncertainty.

The fact that BlueDot was able to correctly identify the coronavirus, in part due to its AI technology, illustrates that smart computer systems can be incredibly useful in helping us navigate these uncertainties.

Importantly, though, this isn’t the same as AI being at a point where it unerringly does so on its own—which is why BlueDot employs human experts to validate the AI’s findings.



  • Coronavirus has spread much more quickly than SARS or MERS.
  • The latest data suggests that it’s less deadly than either SARS or MERS.
  • It will take several weeks to be confident about how the virus behaves, including its mortality rate.

International alarm over the coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, in December is driven by its rapid spread and the fact that infectious disease experts cannot yet know how deadly or contagious it is.

Within weeks, the virus has infected more people than Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) did in months. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global emergency.

The chart below shows the cumulative number of cases starting from the day that symptoms were documented for the first case. When compared to the new virus, the spread of SARS took much longer to gain momentum. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that first emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012, took eight years to infect almost 2,500 people.

Confirmed infections since the first case

The latest statistics indicate a fatality rate of about 2.2%, but disease experts say the actual rate may be higher or lower as there are likely more unconfirmed cases.

The SARS virus killed about 10% of all infected individuals, while the MERS outbreak identified in 2012 had a fatality rate of around 35%.

Disease experts caution that it will take several more weeks to be confident of how the new virus behaves given how quickly it has spread and the fact that a reliable diagnostic test has only recently been introduced.

“Not everybody is being seen, not everybody is being tested,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

“All the experts, myself included, tell the public that there is much we don’t know about this virus and we are learning as we go along. That is not so reassuring.”

Some experts question whether the new virus shares similarities with seasonal flu, which has a low mortality rate but infects so many people that more than half a million may die from it each year, according to global health estimates.

In emerging infectious disease outbreaks, the most serious cases are identified first. Coronavirus infections can range from mild cold-like symptoms to severe cases that cause pneumonia, acute respiratory illness and death.

About 20% of confirmed cases in the China coronavirus outbreak are classified as severe, similar to SARS and MERS, Schaffner said.


How Businesses Should Handle the Coronavirus Outbreak

We’ve put together a handy guide on best practices companies and human resources departments should deploy to help their employees avoid exposure to the new virus strain.

Image credit: Pixabay

The World Health Organisation has named the new coronavirus out of Wuhan that has killed 1,100 people COVID-19, and said that a vaccine to combat the infection should be ready in 18 months.

Cities in China have been cordoned off, airlines have cancelled flights to and out of the country, and airports globally have started implementing thermal scanners to catch any infections early.

Till date, around 45,171 cases of a coronavirus infection have been reported, surpassing the SARS epidemic in early 2000s. According to Chinese officials, the rate of new infections is showing signs of slowing.

Till date, around 45,171 cases of a coronavirus infection have been reported, surpassing the SARS epidemic in early 2000s. According to Chinese officials, the rate of new infections is showing signs of slowing.

Source: Worldometer

With coronavirus still continuing to spread across the world, we’ve put together a handy guide on best practices companies and human resources departments should follow to help their employees stay healthy and infection-free.

Effective Communication is Key

HR departments should pull together information pertaining to the coronavirus to create a ready-to-refer instructional guide for employees that not only educates them about the viral infection, but also enlists ways to avoid it.

The communication strategy should be multi-pronged and use all channels of communication available.

“You are looking at bulletins, sticking posters on the wall, emails, chat groups, town hall, infographics, videos, and any mode of media that could help to effectively communicate the message to all employees,” says Adrian Tan, a veteran HR practitioner and APAC leader of PeopleStrong, an India-based Enterprise HR SaaS platform.

Information gathered should only be from credible and verified sources, such as the page, the CDC website, and reputable news outlets that clearly attribute their information to either statements made by governmental agencies, or health professionals engaged in researching the virus.

Check out this Bloomberg story that busts some myths and highlights false information about coronavirus making the rounds online.

Implement Flexible Working Arrangement Plans, or BCP Protocols

For those in the thick of it – like countries that share a border with China, or have multiple reported cases of a coronavirus infection – allowing employees to work from home is the best way to prevent contamination given that human-to-human transmission is possible.

“By implementing flexible working arrangements, you are not just eliminating the possibility of transmission at the office but also during commute. This is especially so for densely populated cities such as Hong Kong where you are literally inches away from someone’s face in the MTR during peak hours,” says Tan.

This holds true for many other countries with packed urban centres as well.

“Given the better infrastructure that we have today, it is much easier to be “business-as-usual” with chat platforms, project management dashboards and other platforms that are online or on the cloud,” he adds.

This might not be possible for work that is location-dependent though, but the CDC and WHO websites have laid out ways to avoid viral infections by using non-invasive implements such as face masks, alcohol-based hand sanitisers, and maintaining good personal hygiene.

Reconsider Leave Policies

The last thing a company would want is for an infected employee to turn up to work because they didn’t have enough paid time off left. That not only hurts the sick employee who has had to stress him/herself out to get to work, but also their colleagues, as well as everyone and everything they encounter and touch on the way.

“If the company is results-driven, whether the employee works from home or in the office should not matter as long as the work is being delivered. Given the developments in technology today, there is a suite of solutions for companies to use such that meetings, discussions and day-to-day work can go on per normal,” Tan says.

For employees that are suspected of being sick, or start feeling ill during the day, particularly those that have been travelling, calling and notifying health authorities should be a priority. Fear mongering and forcing the employee into isolation, against their will, should be avoided at all costs, until advised by a medical authority.

Using Tech to Avoid Human Contact Might not be such a bad thing

Platforms that allow teams to collaborate and communicate effectively can be used during work-from-home days. Meetings can be done over Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom, while real-time collaborations can be done using free platforms like Collabedit.

(Read about more collaborative tools you can use here and here.)

Other HR Initiatives, Apart From Handing Out Free Masks, According to Tan

  • Beside provisioning free masks and sanitisers, the cleaning schedule of the office can be increased.
  • Senior management has to walk the talk to ensure they mask up wherever appropriate to.
  • Temperature taking could be incorporated so that everyone in the office would have a peace of mind and not be paranoid that their co-workers may be infected. Such information should be openly available so that employees have complete trust in the information provided.
  • Lastly, lunch could be catered so as to minimize employees exposure to crowded areas like the food centre.