US professor Lauren Gardner has won a top science award for creating the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard, a project that tracked and mapped the outbreak of the virus across the world in the earliest days of the pandemic.
Gardner, an associate professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University, was named the recipient of the 2022 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award on Wednesday for creating the tracker, described by the US-based Lasker Foundation as a “trailblazing resource” that “lit a path toward informed policy guidelines and personal choices amidst a morass of misinformation” as the world grappled with the emerging disease.
Gardner, who studies disease transmission modelling, had met with graduate student Ensheng Dong on January 21, 2020 – just weeks after the first coronavirus cases were detected in Wuhan, China. While the pair were meant to discuss vaccine hesitancy and measles, Dong mentioned he was also tracking emerging cases of COVID-19 infections in China.
The next day, the duo launched an early prototype mapping the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases – at the time just 322 infections had spread across east Asia.
Gardner announced the new tool in a tweet on January 22, 2020, writing: “We are tracking the 2019-nCoV spread in real-time. Cases and locations can be viewed here; data available for download.”
— Lauren Gardner (@TexasDownUnder) January 22, 2020
The Lasker Foundation said the words “instigated a revolution in public health reporting” as the tracker expanded to include the ballooning death toll, recoveries, and later vaccinations, with Gardner’s team creating systems to compile numbers from disparate reporting methods from countries across the world. The tracker grew to harvest and validate information from more than 3,500 different sources.
As of Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource centre, the website that houses the global tracker as well other COVID trends data, had received some 1.2 billion page views since 2020, according to the university.
To date, the tracker has recorded more than 616 million COVID cases worldwide, at least six and a half million deaths, and about nine billion vaccine doses administered.
“That data and her team’s expert analysis helped arm policymakers, the medical community, news media and citizens with information to track the pandemic and combat its spread,” Johns Hopkins University wrote in a post on its website.
The university added Gardner’s team further used the information to study how behaviours in the hardest-hit areas across the US affected the early trajectory of the outbreak, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.
Earlier this month, the head of the UN body, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced an end to the pandemic was finally in sight.
I’d argue no engineer has had more impact than @JohnsHopkins Prof. Lauren Gardner in a very long time.
— Denis Wirtz (@deniswirtz) September 28, 2022
Early in the outbreak, the information compiled by Gardner’s team also revealed “the lack of data reporting standards across the US that resulted in disjointed reporting by individual states”, the university said.
For her part, Gardner said it was an “exceptional experience to play such an integral role in keeping the world informed during a global public health crisis, and – equally important – changing the expectations around public access to data and information”.
In statements published by the university, Gardner added she hoped to apply lessons learned by the project to other crises, including climate change.
“These are human-centric problems with deep-rooted inequities, and often are highly politicized. Central to many of these problems is the harm posed by misinformation, arguably one of the most significant threats facing societies today,” she said.
“Addressing these problems demands data-driven solutions and effective science communication. It requires investment and innovation in interdisciplinary sciences, and strong partnerships between researchers and practitioners,” she said.