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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Data from Earth-gazing satellites is key for scientists hoping to understand and track disease outbreaks including the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: A satellite's view can allow health researchers to understand the context of an outbreak in a way other tools cannot, and it has the potential to help scientists predict when and where the next infectious disease outbreak may occur.

What's happening: Companies like Planet and Maxar are able to track empty parking lots, roads and businesses to understand the economic impacts of the pandemic.

  • Satellites are also able to see the flow of people from one place to another, which could allow scientists to trace outbreaks of the disease in densely populated areas.

Details: Scientists are in the midst of collecting data about possible ecological factors that may have led to the current pandemic.

  • The data may also feed models that can help explain how the coronavirus transmits between people and spreads around the world.
  • "We'll look at that data, and we'll really be able to map out, not just the spread of the disease from the migration patterns of people but the recovery process," public health researcher Timothy Ford of the University of Massachusetts told Axios.

The big picture: Satellite data can also help scientists predict when and how new viruses may jump from animals into human populations.

  • Photos from space reveal where people are encroaching on animal habitats.
  • Satellite photos are also used to track vegetation, rainfall and other factors in the four-corners region of the U.S. that put the area at a high risk for hantavirus outbreaks.
  • Previous studies have also shown how environmental factors that play into outbreaks of diseases like Ebola can be seen and predicted using data gathered from orbit.

Yes, but: Robust models require multiple data points and it will likely take more than a dozen outbreaks of these types of coronaviruses to accurately predict when and where the next might occur.

  • "I can definitely say to you that we don't have enough information about SARS-like coronaviruses yet, and hopefully we won't because it would take 15 or 20 more such emergence events," Townsend Peterson, a researcher at the University of Kansas who uses remote sensing data, told Axios.

What's next: Scientists hope to eventually use machine learning and AI to help automate outbreak prediction by quickly analyzing the wealth of data beamed back from orbit.

  • "With the advances in computational capacity and in modeling, people are coming up with new ways to look at these big data sets," Lindsay Campbell, a professor at the University of Florida, told Axios.
  • Governments and commercial companies are also making their data available to researchers so that scientists can find new ways to understand how environments change over time, possibly contributing to health outcomes.

Go deeper

FBI report likely to show record increase in murders in 2020

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If the FBI data released next week shows what's expected — that 2020 saw the highest single-year spike in U.S. murders in at least six decades — experts say the sudden job losses, fears and other jolts to society at the start of COVID-19 will likely have been the overwhelming drivers.

Why it matters: Many Democrats already feared that rising crime could hurt their party in the 2022 midterms.

5 mins ago - Health

Some experts see signs of hope as COVID cases fall

Expand chart
Data: N.Y. Times; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

New coronavirus cases are continuing to decline, and some experts are cautiously optimistic that the virus will continue to wane even into the fall and winter.

The big picture: The next few months are highly uncertain, and some localized outbreaks are all but guaranteed. But the U.S. is at least moving in the right direction again.

Air quality alerts issued as California fires threaten more sequoias

The Windy Fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove of giant sequoia trees near the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest, near California Hot Springs, on Tuesday. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Two wildfires were threatening California's sequoia trees over overnight — hours after authorities issued fresh evacuation orders and warnings, along with air quality alerts.

The big picture: Air quality alerts were issued Wednesday for the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley as smoke from the Windy and KNP Complex fires resulted in hazy, "ash-filled" skies from Fresno to Tulare, the Los Angeles Times notes.