Global Health

The world’s leading COVID-19 tracker is closing down – here's why

Johns Hopkins University is ceasing their live data collection on COVID-19.

Johns Hopkins University is ceasing their live data collection on COVID-19. Image: Unsplash/fusion_medical_animation

Simon Torkington
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Global Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Johns Hopkins University is winding down its Coronavirus Resource Center (CRC).
  • It was a vital resource in the global fight to control the spread of COVID-19.
  • The CRC’s COVID-19 Dashboard provided a powerful visualization of the contagion.
  • Existing data will remain available after the CRC stops collecting new information.

One of the most vital and trusted resources in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 is being retired, three years after the start of the pandemic.

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has announced it will cease its live data collection and reporting on COVID-19 on March 10th.

In early 2020, as a previously unknown virus swept around the globe, a team from JHU created the Coronavirus Resource Center (CRC) to track its spread.

The public-facing data visualization took the form of a stark world map rendered in black and overlaid with red circles representing the location and size of COVID-19 outbreaks.

The COVID-19 dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University to track the outbreak.
The COVID-19 dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University to track the outbreak. Image: Johns Hopkins University

The Johns Hopkins’ tracker dashboard provided a view of the pandemic that was both compelling and alarming.

“I wanted to alarm people that the situation was getting worse.” Ensheng Dong, told The Washington Post in June 2020. The PhD student with a background in data visualization and public health designed the dashboard after hearing first-hand about a new illness spreading in China.

Filling a data void

When the CRC was launched in March 2020, no other organization was compiling data on the geographical spread of COVID-19. Speaking to CNN in July 2020, Professor Lauren Gardner who heads up the CRC said: “We were collecting data on a new virus that nobody understood at a time [when] there was not a single web page dedicated to COVID-19 case count.”

Professor Lauren Gardner leads Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center.
Professor Lauren Gardner leads Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center. Image: Johns Hopkins University

The CRC dashboard quickly became a vital tool for governments, medical leaders, policy makers and journalists as they informed the world about the spread of the virus and implemented policies from social distancing to full lockdowns. Johns Hopkins University says the dashboard has been viewed more than 2.5 billion times and users have made more than 200 billion requests for data.

While accepting the data it was based on was never perfect, the Johns Hopkins team created a platform that gave the world visibility on the spread of the virus. This enabled the early detection of new outbreaks, the ability to analyze short- and long-term trends, and to educate the wider public in their understanding of the threat posed by the virus and the policies being put in place to reduce risks.

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The pandemic continues

Exactly a week before the John Hopkins University tracker is mothballed it still tells a powerful story about the continuing threat from COVID-19.

In the 28 days to 3 February 2023, the dashboard shows that 35,600 deaths globally were attributed to COVID-19 and the number of worldwide cases stood at 4,450,681. The US alone has seen more than a million cases in this timeframe. Given that many nations have dropped the requirement to report COVID-19 infections, it’s safe to assume the real figure is much higher.

And complacency is dangerous, says the World Economic Forum in its Global Risks Report 2023, which highlights the rising risk of a “panic-neglect” cycle. “More frequent and widespread infectious disease outbreaks amidst a background of chronic diseases over the next decade risks pushing exhausted healthcare systems to the brink of failure around the world,” it warns.

So why close the CRC now?

The decision has been influenced by a number of factors. Firstly, vaccines have dramatically reduced the risk of dying as a result of being infected. The tracker shows 29,048,282 doses were administered globally in the 28 days to 3 February 2023 and more than 13.3 billion have been given since the start of the pandemic.

But not all parts of the world have been vaccinated equally, with large parts of the global south lagging far behind vaccination rates in wealthier nations.

Map showing the percentage of the population receiving at least one vaccination dose. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
Nations shaded in lighter tones have a lower percentage of vaccinated people (March 2023). Image: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

For example, in Senegal, just 16% of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine and in the island nation of Madagascar only 8.4% are vaccinated.

A decline in the availability of public health data is another reason given for winding down the COVID-19 tracker. John Hopkins says: “The CRC was designed to provide aggregated, real-time global data reported at the federal, state, county and tribal nation levels. Starting in 2021, however, US states and counties began to consistently reduce the amount of publicly reported data.”

With governments around the world following a similar policy, there is not enough raw data to provide an accurate global picture of transmission.

Staying alert

The pandemic data compiled by the CRC will remain freely available and accessible and the experts who run it have committed to providing analysis and guidance on the pandemic as required.

"After three years of round-the-clock work building and maintaining a 24/7 global resource, we have reached the appropriate time to close this chapter of our response and look to other ways to keep the public safe and informed," said Professor Gardner.

"But if we're needed again, we stand ready and willing to serve."

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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