Covid-19: When the first African case of covid-19 took place in Egypt in mid-February 2020, Steven Schiff, Professor of Engineering at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, USA, saw an opportunity to apply what he was learning in real life. his studies: tracking and controlling infectious diseases. The idea was to provide countries like Uganda with more information to help guide policy for mitigating the viral pandemic. And it worked.
Schiff has initiated a cross-country collaboration to develop a surveillance modeling tool that provides a weekly projection of expected covid-19 cases across all African countries, based on current case data, population, economic situation, current surveillance efforts. satellite meteorological mitigation and detection. The results were published June 29 in the Proceedings of the United States National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The tool’s projections use openly available data to provide a projection of cases, as well as lower and upper ranges to help the country decide whether mitigation policies need to be implemented or modified. The system was developed in partnership with the Uganda National Planning Authority (NPA), the country’s senior organization for economic development and planning.
Predict to prevent a pandemic
“When the covid-19 pandemic started, we had this unusual team of scientists working hard to implement P3H in Africa and we thought we could do a lot to fight this new virus,” said Schiff, who founded the Center for Neural Engineering at Penn State. His team includes Paddy Ssentongo, a Ugandan-born assistant research professor in engineering and mechanical sciences.
“This pandemic has shown us that we need to place more emphasis on global public health – especially in places with fragile health systems, including many countries in Africa,” said Ssentongo. “If we wait for people to get sick, we are already losing. The best we can do is prevent”.
The study spanned multiple disciplines and brought together diverse experts – from epidemiologists to meteorologists and economists – covering all the factors influencing viral spread. “We put together a great team to handle what was needed,” said Schiff. “The team consists of 19 people in four countries, plus many other individuals who contributed through discussions and support,” he added.
Difficulties in mitigating covid-19
For Schiff, as important as understanding the number and location of people with active cases is understanding the importance of climate, geography and other factors – especially in developing countries, where people live and work in more exposed conditions than in industrialized countries.
“You need real-time information collected about the virus, such as tests and blocking, as well as other influencing factors, such as the varied economic security of different countries and their health systems. Our strategy synthesizes all of this data across Africa for to make surprisingly good projections of the expected number of cases based on how these factors interact and influence the transmission of COVID in the population,” explained the professor.
Abraham JB Muwanguzi, co-author of the article and manager of the NPA’s Department of Science and Technology, also serves as the principal investigator in Uganda. “We are working closely with the Ministry of Health to use the model in analyzing how covid trends are moving,” said Muwanguzi.
“In September and October 2020, at the height of the COVID cases, the model projected an increase in cross-border cases, prompting the government to close our border. We had fewer cases than projected because we were able to mitigate a predicted source that was well captured in the model,” explained the investigator.
The tool has also helped Uganda to plan how to use its resources. “For example, in March and April of this year, the model projected a tremendous drop in cases,” said Muwanguzi. He added: “Our hospital centers began to deflate – there really were fewer cases. We could then scale back operations and reallocate resources to other areas of need.”
The projected increases have helped Uganda better prepare its hospital centers, sourcing sufficient supplies and planning to avoid overloading hospitals and health workers. “We hope that other countries in Africa will not only use this tool, but also collaborate to ensure they are integrating data in terms of testing and case reports,” said Ssentongo.
According to Schiff, the findings clearly demonstrate the advantages of cooperation between countries in controlling the pandemic. “This is a crisis that no country can fully manage on its own,” Schiff said. The tool is available for free online.