Sars Cov-2
Sars Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. | Source: NIAID-RML

Microsoft Excel was involved in a major data blunder in the United Kingdom that saw COVID-19 cases inaccurately reported. Nearly 16,000 confirmed coronavirus cases were lost because Public Health England made a blunder with the popular Microsoft Office spreadsheet app.

According to a report by the BBC, Public Health England (PHE) developers configured Microsoft Excel to import CSV files from lab tests into XLS files. All the CSV files came from private contractors who were hired to analyze swab tests for COVID-19.

Developers for PHE configured Excel to automatically receive CSV files, but in the legacy XLS format. This is important because the older format as a limit of 65,000 rows of data. Because of this, some data from the CSV files were lost.

After receiving the files, the developers would upload the data to a central system to share with the NHS Test and Trace Team, who would then report on cases. The problem is, they were receiving incomplete data missing around 16,000 confirmed cases.

Incorrect Data

Each file in XLS format was only showing 1,400 test results. Between September 25 and October 2, 15,841 cases were not reported. Switching to the XLSX format, which allows one million rows of data, would have allowed excess room for data.

The problem for reporting in the UK is it remains unclear if this blunder extends beyond those dates and has affected case reports across a wider timeframe.

“A technical issue was identified overnight on Friday, 2 October in the data-load process that transfers COVID-19 positive lab results into reporting dashboards,” said PHE interim chief executive Michael Brodie.

“After rapid investigation, we have identified that 15,841 cases between 25 September and 2 October were not included in the reported daily COVID-19 cases. The majority of these cases occurred in most recent days.” 

As the UK enters a second wave of COVID-19 resulting in lockdowns, the blunder has come at a bad time.