The Geography of COVID-19 (Part 2): Maps and Science

Science examines the unknown through a process grounded in unbiased observation, systematic experimentation, and reproducible, peer-evaluated results. Geography can be characterized as the science of where and explores questions related to place, location, networks, and diffusion. Many questions related to the current pandemic are geographic in nature and dynamic maps can help other sciences better understand its roots, its spread, and ultimately its management. We examine four geographic questions related to the coronavirus and provide links to maps that help interpret those questions:

(1) Where did the virus start and how has it evolved over space and time?

(2) What geographic conditions contributed to its genesis and its network of diffusion?

(3) Where is critical research taking place and how is it being shared?

(4) How can contact tracing and testing help control the spread?

Viruses evolve rapidly over time because they reproduce quickly. “Mapping” the genetic signal, or genome, of COVID-19 is the first step in identifying its structure. The COVID-19 virus has a different genetic makeup in different locations and its genetic blueprint provides the basis for tracking the COVID-19 genome mutation and transmission around the world. Nextstrain is an open platform for scientists and researchers to share real-time tracking of the COVID-19 genome and helps provide the basis for identifying public health interventions. The Nextstrain site provides an animation of the virus’s genetic tree over time based on global sampling, coupled with a world map of the virus transmission.

Mapping the novel coronavirus pandemic tells the emerging story of where the virus originated and how it began to spread. The coronavirus is a zoonotic disease – meaning that it can be transmitted to humans from animals, jumping the most fundamental of boundaries and crossing between species. Evidence suggests that the outbreak can be traced to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China), a wet market of open-air stalls selling fresh seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables. Three critical geographic factors further facilitated the spread of the virus: (1) Wuhan is a regional hub of transportation with high-speed rail and domestic flights; (2) the outbreak coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year – a significant holiday where people travel throughout the country, and (3) the area of southwest China is a rapidly developing region located in a tropical area with high population as well as wildlife diversity. This location is representative of many locations that could be considered zoonotic disease “hotspots”. Understanding where zoonotic hotspots are located can focus attention and direct resources to these regions to better prepare for future viruses that may lead to other pandemics.

The COVID-19 virus has catalyzed an international research effort. These research efforts are being tracked and coordinated built upon WHO’s international roadmap that is cross-cutting and inclusive of both natural and social sciences. WHO has also identified 15 COVID-19 international laboratories with expertise in the molecular detection of the coronavirus and that coordinate with national labs around the world. Partnerships between private companies, universities, governments, and think tanks are hallmarks of the current research being undertaken. Bluedot, a Canadian company, demonstrates how big data can be applied to COVOD-19 research. BlueDot Explorer is a GIS platform that integrates diverse datasets such as global air travel and disease transmission patterns around the world.