Epidemiology research group wants to anticipate future pandemics
Given that researchers agree on the possibility of another pandemic happening in the future, it is possible and indeed necessary to prepare for new events. The big question is whether research and studies will be able to predict the evolution of new viruses and outbreaks or whether it will merely be possible to deal with them more appropriately. This is the opinion of Claudio Struchiner, a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ School of Applied Mathematics (FGV EMAp) and a researcher in mathematical epidemiology, an area that became well known during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the last three years, studies in this field of knowledge have made it possible to answer questions such as the groups that would be most affected, the extent of the need for social isolation, the size of hospital network required to care for the sick and the effectiveness of vaccines. Mathematical epidemiology can also help governments make decisions.
In short, mathematical epidemiology studies diseases using mathematics and numbers. Methods are used to extract information from different databases and then quantitative and computational methods are employed to predict, act and intervene in the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases.
The COVID-19 pandemic, previous outbreaks (such as those involving H1N1 and Ebola), the evolution of computational tools, the digitization of information and developments in biology, including viral sequencing, are some of the reasons given by FGV EMAp researchers for the advances in mathematical epidemiology seen in recent years. And this field will be important in preparing for the next likely pandemics.
“There is a certainty and consensus among researchers that we will have a new pandemic. However, the big question is whether or not we can anticipate the evolution of a virus. There are people who argue that the evolutionary process is unpredictable and others who argue that it is possible to identify an evolutionary pattern and anticipate the emergence of this new threat,” says Struchiner, a member of the mathematical epidemiology research group at FGV EMAp, which is made up of six professors and undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students at the institution.
The backgrounds of these researchers are diverse. Struchiner has an undergraduate degree in medicine, a master’s in mathematics and a doctorate in population dynamics of infectious diseases. Other professors in the group have a background in physics, including Guilherme Tegoni Goedert, and in microbiology and immunology, like Luiz Max Carvalho.
The group has just formed a partnership with researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, led by André Ponce de Leon, to work on projects to prepare for a new pandemic, such as integrating databases and transforming data into information and using artificial intelligence to combat fake news, among other things. “There’s no point in having developments if the population rejects knowledge due to misconceptions,” notes Struchiner.
According to him, the factors that contribute to the chance of a new pandemic include climate change, greater human contact with other species (when entering different natural biomes) and the modern way of life, with interconnectivity and more intense physical contact between people and in different parts of the world.
To cope with these new conditions, advances in mathematical epidemiology research across the world, including in Brazil, which can predict, monitor and intervene in health crises are becoming more important. Struchiner notes the importance of segments such as genomic surveillance and health surveillance. In Brazil, he mentions the Health Ministry’s Digital Health Program, an initiative led by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Bahia to integrate different databases, and another Fiocruz project in Rio de Janeiro.
Some projects on the scientific frontier were discussed at the International Colloquium on Mathematical Modelling in Epidemiology, held recently in FGV’s main building in Rio de Janeiro. One of the participants was John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was a consultant to the British government during the pandemic. He talked about the use of economic modeling in this work. Another guest was Harvard University professor Mauricio Santillana, who discussed the lessons of COVID-19 in the use of multiple mathematical approaches to monitor disease outbreaks.
“We also want to encourage students in the various programs here at FGV to channel their training in this direction,” says Struchiner.