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Features: Faculty Insights


While the COVID-19 pandemic separated us physically, it also caused parts of our communities to pull together to meet the challenge. One group of people who have done this particularly well are mathematicians — with members of the Mathematics Faculty playing a leading role.

The mathematicians who joined the fight against COVID-19 include researchers who already worked in the field of epidemiology when the pandemic started, and those whose expertise in building mathematical models could be repurposed to modelling the spread of the virus.

While much of this mathematical effort took place behind the scenes, we all saw its results on a weekly basis, when government briefings talked about the latest estimates of the R number, the projections of the models, and what they meant for our daily lives. Without the mathematical groundwork it would have been impossible to decide what interventions were necessary to save lives, how to deploy the vaccines, and how to ease our way out of lockdown.

Two mathematical initiatives that have been particularly remarkable are Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) and the JUNIPER modelling consortium. Julia Gog, Professor of Mathematical Biology, and Michael Cates, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, have played a central role in founding and leading these initiatives. Both are members of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).

RAMP: An early call to action

RAMP came into being at the very start of the pandemic, in March 2000, following an initial call from the Royal Society for volunteers coordinated by a small group of mathematicians which included Cates, Gog, as well as Pilip Dawid, Emeritus Professor of Statistics at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics (DPMMS). The idea was to harness the skills of all people with experience in mathematical modelling in the UK, whether they work in academia or industry, and regardless of their particular field of interest: be it urban planning, soft matter physics, or the ventilation of buildings.

"We had 1,800 responses, many from teams of up to fifty people, sometimes more." Michael Cates

"We were overwhelmed by the scale of the response," Cates said at a recent event organised by the Newton Gateway to Mathematics, next door to the Centre for Mathematical Sciences. "We had 1,800 responses, but many of those were from teams of up to fifty people, sometimes more."

Some of the volunteers were allocated to existing epidemiological modelling groups which, in the face of the global emergency, were stretched to the limit. Other volunteers were given the monumental task of scouring the rapidly growing academic literature on disease modelling generally, and COVID in particular, for useful methods and results. These could then be filtered through to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the modelling group that feeds into SAGE, known as SPI-M.

In addition RAMP convened a number of task teams of up to 200 people to address some of the urgent questions COVID presented us with: from understanding the behaviour of the virus within an individual's body to understanding the behaviour of people in small spaces where the virus can easily be transmitted.

These activities were supported by a dedicated research programme at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences (INI), which RAMP helped to establish. The programme enabled researchers, including many whose work directly informed the UK government's policy on COVID, to exchange ideas and discuss their latest results in a number of virtual workshops and seminars throughout 2020.

During the initial phase of the pandemic, up to December 2020, RAMP volunteers produced an astonishing amount of work. Those who had been seconded to SPI-M to support SAGE published or submitted around 50 papers and reports, while literature reviewers assessed hundreds of papers, many at the request of SPI-M and SAGE. At the same time, RAMP volunteered some vital stress testing of the computer codes that implement the mathematical models used to understand the pandemic. The INI research programme resulted in a number of papers and talks freely accessible online.

Ensuring continuity

When the first part of the RAMP initiative was wound down at the end of 2020, the RAMP Continuity Network continued what RAMP had started. The network linked up with other initiatives that had sprung up around COVID, such as the Virtual Forum for Knowledge Exchange in the Mathematical Sciences (V-KEMS). It provided funding for over 20 further research meetings — now finally being held in person — at the INI and the Newton Gateway, and a new staff member at the Royal Society responsible for communicating scientific advances to policy makers.

"The main [result of the RAMP] Continuity Network has been the series of programmes around the INI," said Cates. "When science becomes turbo charged and everything is developed at breakneck speed, you need extra meetings, and it's no good asking scientists to organise those."

Click here to see some examples of research done by RAMP volunteers on Plus magazine. This includes work by DAMTP researchers Paul Linden, Rajesh Bhagat, and Stuart Dalziel, on how to make indoor spaces COVID safe.

JUNIPER: Building a community

The group that called RAMP into being on behalf of the Royal Society also included Julia Gog, whose work had previously focused on influenza. She had been a member of SPI-M for a while, and was asked to contribute to SAGE soon after the pandemic hit (see this interview with Gog to find out more about her journey through the pandemic). As events were unfolding, she realised that a coordinated effort of epidemiologists would be useful.

"In May 2020, SPI-M [comprised] about 50 active participants," she said at the Newton Gateway event. "Lots of them came from large institutions, but many of us came from smaller research groups with particular interests and expertise. Quite naturally over spring and summer 2020 we started joining forces."

This sowed the seeds of the Joint Universities Pandemic and Epidemiological Research consortium, known as JUNIPER, which formally started in November 2020.

"Our aim was to build a community so we could work together. This meant we could respond to the emergency much more efficiently and we could use our expertise appropriately" Julia Gog

JUNIPER has three key aims. "One is to build a community so we could work together," said Gog. "This meant we could respond to the emergency much more efficiently and we could use our expertise appropriately. We'd see the urgent [requests] come in [from SAGE and SPI-M] and we could distribute them amongst ourselves, bringing in extra expertise. Also [we'd have] a massive support network under the two years of pressure we have faced."

The other two key aims are to interact and share with the wider science community and the general public, and to train the next generation of epidemiologists. JUNIPER is co-led by Gog and Matt Keeling of the University of Warwick and consists of research groups from seven universities: Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Lancaster, Manchester, Oxford and Warwick.

"The kind of work JUNIPER has done includes [work on] educational settings — schools and universities— and the impact of different vaccination strategies. In particular looking at new variants, [such as] the emergence of Delta and Omicron, is [an area] where JUNIPER was able to respond very quickly," said Gog. JUNIPER members have also helped plan the roadmap out of lockdown and supported the work of SPI-M generally, for example by providing weekly estimates of the R number and short-term projections.

Over its lifetime so far JUNIPER has produced over 80 peer reviewed papers and presented over 100 papers to SPI-M. More than twenty of these were presented to SAGE and published as part of the scientific evidence supporting the government's response to COVID in the UK. The RAMP initiative and the events organised by the INI and the Newton Gateway allowed JUNIPER members to share their work with the wider science community.

Communicating COVID research

Because of the nature of the research, which formed the evidence underlying heavy restrictions such as lockdowns, it was (and still is) essential to give the wider public a chance to understand and scrutinise it. This is why mathematics communication experts Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas have been part of the JUNIPER consortium from the start. Freiberger and Thomas are Editors of Plus magazine, a free online platform that brings mathematics to non-expert audiences and is part of the Faculty's Millennium Mathematics Project.

"This [collaboration] has meant we have had in-house science writing and were able to communicate very directly from research to the public," says Gog. The large repository of materials produced as part of this collaboration so far explores important concepts, such as the R number or the growth rate, the mathematical models being employed, as well as their projections. Some of these articles have been referenced by government guidance, been circulated to press and policy makers, and included in papers to SAGE. See here to find out more.

The work of the JUNIPER team has been recognised by honours and awards. Julia Gog was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to academia and the COVID-19 response, with JUNIPER members Matt Keeling, Ellen Brooks-Pollock, and Dani DeAngelis also receiving British honours during the pandemic. More recently, four members of DAMTP affiliated to JUNIPER — Ciara Dangerfield, Marianne Freiberger, Maria Tang, and Rachel Thomas — received the SPI-M-O Award for Modelling and Data support on behalf of SAGE for their exceptional contribution to the work of SPI-M-O, along with a further 27 members of JUNIPER.

RAMP was conceived as a temporary initiative and is now being wrapped up. The JUNIPER consortium continues its work, addressing COVID related challenges that still lie ahead, as well as new public health threats such as monkeypox. Both projects show what can be done when people decide to work together. The hope is that the connections, and ways of collaborating, that have been forged will be maintained and provide a blueprint for dealing with future emergencies.

Photo at the top by Chris Montgomery.