A call to action on COVID-19

By 
Rachel Thomas

A call to action on COVID-19

An urgent call has gone out to the scientific modelling community to help fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The call is coordinated by the Royal Society and led by a small group of academics including two Cambridge mathematicians, Michael Cates, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, and Julia Gog, Professor of Mathematical Biology.

"The response has been overwhelming with hundreds of researchers offering their services so far." – Michale Cates

The UK is lucky to have world-class experts in epidemiology and pandemic modelling. These researchers are working round-the-clock on the evolving pandemic, providing evidence to inform government policy, but they are fully stretched and this is where researchers from other fields can help. The Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) taskforce has been set up to harness the valuable skills of the wider scientific community in the UK, such as those experts in computer modelling who do not have direct experience working on pandemic models. Cates says that this is the first time in his lifetime that he's encountered such an urgent call to arms for mathematicians and scientists to help save lives.

Shibuya crossing

Agent based models are used widely in simulating systems in biology, sociology, economics and even management – including modelling the movement of people. Photo: Andrew Eland, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Scientists from both academia and industry, working in research areas such as urban traffic planning, financial market modelling, dataflow optimization across communications networks, and individualized marketing on social media, have vital skills that could support the pandemic modelling effort. As the RAMP call explains, for example, some existing epidemic models, called individual based models, are closely related to agent based models used in some of these other research fields. The fact that expertise from such a wide range of areas can help is testament to the effectiveness and interconnected nature of mathematics, with some of the epidemiological models being closely related to models in these other research fields.

"Julia Gog has been involved in the epidemic modelling all along and will play a pivotal role connecting the new 'volunteer' workforce with the existing modelling teams," says Cates. The taskforce could provide advice on how research from these different areas can be applied to modelling the pandemic, build the software needed to integrate the vast datasets into the pandemic models, analyse the data, and add to the human and computing resources required to tackle this massive task. (Gog's article in Nature Reviews Physics explores some way in which physicists can help.)

"We are all humans first and mathematicians or scientists second – faced with a human catastrophe, everyone's first instinct is to do whatever they can to help out." – Michael Cates

A primary aim of RAMP is to understand how possible exit strategies from the lockdown conditions currently in place in the UK, and around the world, could work, says Cates. In order to do this, RAMP will coordinate the efforts of this new volunteer workforce to build the computing and modelling capacity needed to explore possible exit strategies, refine the predictions of these models in response to live data from around the world, and try to understand our best way forward. "Understanding possible exit strategies is one primary aim; other [aims] may emerge as the situation evolves," says Cates.

"The response has been overwhelming with hundreds of researchers offering their services so far," says Cates. "They have been incredibly helpful. It shows that we are all humans first and mathematicians or scientists second – faced with a human catastrophe, everyone's first instinct is to do whatever they can to help out. The goal of RAMP is to marshal this goodwill into the most productive channels possible."

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