Mathematical research takes up the challenge of predicting the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic and its socio-economic impact

Picture: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

  • Scientists from the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics (BCAM), the University of the Basque Country and Ikerbasque, together with expert staff from the Basque Government’s Department of Health and Osakidetza, are collaborating on modelling the dynamics of the COVID-19 disease
  • They use mathematical and statistical models and artificial intelligence algorithms to describe the impact of the pandemic in the Basque Country, defining the process of infection of the disease and its evolution
  • They also prepare periodic reports with the predictions, at seven days, of positive cases and hospital stays for the Basque Country and its main Integrated Health Organisations (OSI), based on the observed daily data

Since the beginning of humanity, Mathematics has been the base on which all natural and social sciences have been based. At the same time, contributing to solving the challenges of society and of other disciplines has been the source of inspiration for most mathematical developments throughout history. The current health crisis generated by COVID-19 is no exception and is once again proving the contribution of this discipline to social well-being.

Hundreds of mathematicians around the world are working against the clock to help in the fight against this disease, whether it is investigating the spread of the virus, determining the evolution of the pandemic or helping to make decisions about the duration of exceptional measures to deal with it.

In the Basque Country, scientific members from the Basque Centre for Applied Mathematics – BCAM, the University of the Basque Country and Ikerbasque have been working together with the Basque Government’s Department of Health for the last month to model the dynamics of the COVID-19 disease, describing the impact of the pandemic and characterizing the process of infection of the disease and its evolution.

Since the beginning of the health crisis, BCAM has put its experience and knowledge at the disposal of the administration in order to provide information and daily estimates on the number of expected hospital admissions and, among them, those expected to be more serious, those requiring ICU care.

In fact, the center has set up a working group on COVID-19 within the framework of the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence research area and the Mathematical Modelling in Biology area, which collaborate closely with the UPV/EHU, Ikerbasque and Basque health institutions. This is a multidisciplinary group that is carrying out its work from the Basque Country and Italy and is made up of internationally recognized scientists. They have extensive experience in modelling infectious diseases such as dengue or Ebola, and they collaborate with experts in this field from other institutions, which has made it possible to face the problem from various complementary scientific perspectives, providing administrations with information for decision-making, as well as day to day support for hospitals in managing this health crisis.

Through epidemiological models (SIR and extensions), operational research and Gaussian processes, it has been possible to describe the dynamics of the disease.  The results have been validated with data on the incidence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Basque Country, data on hospital stays, ICU and mortality provided by Osakidetza. The results show that the epidemic in the Basque Country has now entered the linear phase, and the number of positive cases is stabilizing. Periodic reports have been prepared with the predictions, at seven days, of positive cases and hospital stays for both the Basque Country and its main ICOs. In addition, work continues on evaluating the effect of the containment measures carried out on the transmission of the disease with the aim of supporting future decisions on its progressive flexibilization.

The assessment obtained by the health council, as well as Osakidetza, has been very positive, both highlighting the accuracy and content of the information provided. During a press conference this morning, the Director of Health Planning, Organization and Evaluation of the Basque Government’s Department of Health, Mikel Sánchez, expressed his gratitude to BCAM and other companies in the field of R+D+i that are altruistically collaborating with the Basque Government to try to stop this pandemic. Sanchez stated that relying on innovative technologies such as Artificial Intelligence is key to ávercoming a crisis such as the COVID-19: “It is essential to follow the steps in this direction of some countries that are ahead of us in this pandemic, as is the case of China, Singapore or South Korea itself”.

In this context, in view of the economic and social impact caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, BCAM proposes to continue contributing, focusing its fundamental research capacities, to strengthen the fight against the disease and to contribute to recovery and to minimize possible future impacts.

In this sense, BCAM proposes to launch new research projects in the field of artificial intelligence for the tracking of affected people, early detection of symptoms compatible with COVID-19, modelling of asymptomatic people and even the relationship of the pandemic with other factors in collaboration with other centers such as the climate change research center, BC3. At the same time, work continues on analyzing the data from the current scenario in order to adequately plan and manage resources in such a way to minimize the impact on the Basque Country’s industrial system and take the appropriate measures to reactivate the economy.

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