Coronavirus: I-Team tracks COVID-19 pandemic through flight data

We are getting new details of a disaster in motion, how the coronavirus spread across the world. Data analysis from the ABC7 News I-Team shows how hundreds of flights from global hotspots brought travelers to the Bay Area.

We found hundreds of direct flights that landed at San Francisco International in the months since the pandemic erupted, from hotspots like Spain and Italy, but most important of all, China.

The ABC7 I-Team has analyzed more than 20 million flight records obtained from the tracking service Flightradar 24. From December through March, as the coronavirus outbreak ravaged China, more than 3,200 flights left there on direct routes to at least 20 cities across the U.S. - 469 flights to San Francisco International alone.

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Art Reingold is head of epidemiology at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.

Dan Noyes: "Is this data important to understanding how this pandemic has occurred?"

Art Reingold: "Yes, I think the data are important, but again they basically reinforce something we already knew, which is that if an infectious agent arises in one part of the world ... it can move to other parts of the world quickly."

Our data shows 50 direct flights to SFO from Wuhan, the Chinese metropolis where the outbreak is believed to have started in a wild meat market. The precise number of infected passengers who came to the U.S. is unclear. Experts tell us, such massive travel meant that the flow of the virus into the U.S. probably came quickly after it began spreading in China.

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"We're talking about infectious agents inside people," Reingold said. "And when the people travel they take their infectious agents with them."

President Trump has repeatedly said his move to limit travel from China saved countless lives, as he did February 26th: "And we did it very early, a lot of people thought we shouldn't have done it that early but we did and it turned out to be a very good thing.".

The president ordered the China travel ban January 31st, but our analysis shows, in February and March, at least 400 more flights direct from Chinese airports to American cities, as the outbreak took hold in the US.

Art Reingold tells us, blocking flights may have briefly helped stem the tide. "But the reality is we already had multiple introductions of the virus into the United States, and the fundamental problem is even once we knew the virus was here, we haven't had a coordinated effective approach in dealing with it."

Our data shows, in the past few months, we had flights from other countries that were hotspots: 65 flights from Spain, and one from Italy before the federal government shut down most air travel from Europe in mid-March.

We found hundreds of direct flights that landed at San Francisco International in the months since the pandemic erupted, from hotspots like Spain and Italy, but most important of all, China.Our data shows, in the past few months, we had flights from other countries that were hotspots - 65 flights from Spain, and one from Italy before the federal government shut down most air travel from Europe in mid-March.

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