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U of T researchers receive federal grants for COVID-19 modelling projects

V. Kumar Murty, a professor of mathematics, and Patrick Brown, an associate professor of statistical sciences, are working on modelling projects that could improve Canada's COVID-19 response (photos by Johnny Guatto and the Faculty of Arts & Science)

Two University of Toronto researchers will receive federal funding to help advance the country’s ability to better respond to health emergencies like COVID-19 through the Emerging Infectious Diseases Modelling Initiative.  

Delivered jointly by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the initiative seeks to support Canada’s COVID-19 response by creating modelling tools that can inform public health decisions. 

The initiative will also enhance Canada’s infectious disease modelling capacity to support public health responses to infectious diseases in the future by building a national network for collaboration and knowledge transfer.   

V. Kumar Murty, a professor in the department of mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science and director of the Fields Institute, will receive a $3 million grant over two years to further develop his Mathematics for Public Health (MfPH) project. 

“The goal of MfPH is to create an ecosystem for a national network of mathematical modellers and public health policy-makers that can rapidly respond to public health emergencies,” says Murty. 

MfPH will develop integrative and comprehensive models to quantify the burden of infectious diseases on society by exploring the complete scope of potential health, social, economic, environmental and seasonal impacts of proposed public health interventions. 

“The current pandemic has taught us the importance of communication and knowledge translation in constructing and refining timely, innovative and effective mathematical models in response to public health queries,” says Murty. “It has also taught us the importance of building capacity through training of the next generation of modellers.” 

MfPH is led by the Fields Institute with Murty and Jianhong Wu of York University as co-principal investigators. It establishes a partnership between the Fields Institute and the Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences, the Centre de recherches mathématiques and the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences.  

Murty was also the recipient of a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) last year that helped set up the COVID-19 Mathematical Modelling Rapid Response Task Force – a network of experts who work to predict outbreak trajectories for the disease, measure public health interventions and provide real-time advice to policy-makers. 

Patrick Brown, an associate professor in the department of statistical sciences, was also awarded funding – $750,000 over two years – for his Statistical Methods for Managing Emerging Infectious Diseases project. 

Brown’s project assembles top Canadian biostatisticians working on infectious diseases and pairs them with epidemiologists developing novel methods for data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Our project team will develop methods and tools for studying how infectious diseases differ amongst geographical, socio-economic and demographic groups,” says Brown.  

Brown says the picture we currently have of COVID-19 is incomplete.  

“Not everyone infected is symptomatic, many don't get tested, antibody tests miss some infections and people from marginalized communities are less likely to be tested or surveyed,” he says.

“Uncertainty in the data is a particular problem for understanding how the epidemic has affected the more vulnerable parts of the population.” 

In response, Brown’s group will develop methods and tools to obtain an accurate picture of the nature and extent of infectious disease transmission in the population, relying on real-world data from administrative sources and surveys. 

Upon completion of the project, Brown and his team hope to create a set of software tools and educational materials, and support a group of highly trained graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who can boost Canada's ability to respond to new infectious diseases.  

“We will also build a research network of scientists and trainees at universities across Canada, develop new statistical methods for understanding infectious diseases in different groups and communities and find new insights into how COVID-19 affected the various parts of Canada's population,” Brown says.  

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