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MRC Seminar Series Launch: “Tracking the COVID-19 pandemic in real time”

by Guest Author on 3 Dec 2020

In September, we launched the Medical Research Council (MRC) Seminar Series, which takes place on the third Thursday of the month, to showcase health-related research from MRC investments and collaboration. Here, Claire Mooney, Strategic Stakeholder Engagement Manager for MRC and the organiser of the series, writes about what she took away from the inaugural event.

Over the last few months, we have all become very accustomed to looking at and interpreting graphs related to tracking the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously relatively unknown terms such as “R” numbers have become part of our everyday language and phrases such as “lockdown” and “circuit-breakers” have taken on new significance. Despite having a scientific background (and probably also because of it) there have been many occasions since March 2020 when I wanted more detail on how the information presented to us nightly on the news was generated. So, I was very pleased when Professor Daniela De Angelis, Deputy Director and Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit, agreed to be the inaugural speaker at The MRC Seminar Series in September. Professor De Angelis’ work has played an important role in monitoring and forecasting aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and based on the large number of people that attended the talk, it seemed that I wasn’t alone in my desire to know more. During her talk she gave us fascinating fly-on-the-wall insights into her work between March and September in a talk entitled “Tracking the COVID-19 pandemic in real time”.

Professor De Angelis and her team use a modified version of the model they used successfully during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. Known as a SEIR model, it uses data from various sources to first estimate the number of people who are either susceptible (S) to, exposed (E) to, infected (I) by or recovered (R) from a virus. It can then predict the probability of transitioning from being susceptible to the virus to being infected by it based on various factors (“functions”) such as how people interact.

Far from being something static, the model is continually developed as data sources and data availability change. Prior to lockdown in March, it initially used COVID-19 death registrations and figures for the number of people with antibodies against the Sars-Cov-2 virus (serology data) to estimate what level of social distancing would be required to sufficiently suppress the transmission of the virus in two main areas – London and outside London. Subsequently, during lockdown as the numbers of infections, and sadly deaths, increased across the UK and COVID-19 testing data became available, Professor De Angelis’ team incorporated this growing body of information into their model. This allowed them to predict the reproduction (R) number in different regions, the number of new infections over time, the proportion of the population infected, short-term estimates of the number of deaths and the age-specific death rate. Following this, in June and July as lockdown began to ease, Professor De Angelis’ team used their model to predict whether transmission was ongoing or not and how this would affect the R number across different regions. Even at the time of her talk, Professor De Angelis’ team were still making modifications to the model by reflecting changes in COVID-19 survival rates and death recording policies, incorporating new data from COVID-19 testing in the wider population, and reviewing the use of serology data due to the possibility of antibody levels diminishing over time. These recent revisions were helping to improve the accuracy of the model’s predictions, which at the time were indicating future increases in infections.

After Professor De Angelis’s talk, we did unfortunately see this predicted increase in COVID-19 cases which is now gradually being reduced due to a second lockdown. While these fluctuations in levels can be concerning, recent news of COVID-19 vaccines has offered some relief. Moreover, having attended Professor De Angelis’ talk, I do find extra comfort in now being equipped with detailed knowledge of how scientists like her have already worked to monitor the pandemic and will no doubt continue to do so as it progresses. By sharing their work in this way, scientists like Professor De Angelis continue to uphold the values and mission of the Medical Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, in advancing and disseminating knowledge and promoting dialogue with the public. With a constant flow of COVID-19 information coming at us from all directions, having a trustworthy source of information that we can refer to in order to contextualise what we are reading elsewhere is, to me, invaluable.

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