BIOCOM-SC: keeping a close eye on COVID-19

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From left to right, Martí Català, Sergio Alonso, Clara Prats, Enric Alvarez and Daniel López-Codina, researchers from the BIOCOM-SC on the Baix Llobregat Campus.

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From left to right: Martí Català, Clara Prats, Daniel López-Codina, Sergio Alonso and Enric Álvarez, in one of the few moments that they have spent together in person in recent months.

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Clara Prats, Martí Català and Pere Joan Cardona, from the IGTP, upon assessing the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic using a jointly created mathematical model a few months ago.

For over a year now, the UPC’s Computational Biology and Complex Systems Group (BIOCOM-SC) has been working steadily, studying the data and making forecasts about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Catalonia and Europe. A key task that has highlighted the value of science and technology and the need to make knowledge available to society.

Jul 13, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the importance of managing health systems around the world and also to the crucial role of science and technology and the need to share data. Research groups such as the BIOCOM-SC of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) have placed their scientific knowledge of mathematical epidemiology at the service of society by making it accessible and understandable for general audiences.

The five principal investigators - the coordinator Clara Prats, Daniel López-Codina, Enric Álvarez, Sergio Alonso and Martí Català - who are biophysicists and engineering physicists from the Department of Physics, with the help of some twenty UPC students of Physical Engineering and Data Science and Engineering, have been working relentlessly to collect and interpret publicly available data in order to learn about the evolution of the pandemic in Catalonia, Spain and Europe and make short-term forecasts. They have been working round the clock, exchanging information with scientists and health professionals from around the world and meeting online. A huge challenge that they had to face while balancing their personal lives.

For years, the group of scientists had been applying mathematics to better understand the behaviour of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. With the advent of COVID-19 they have shifted the focus onto studying the evolution of the pandemic. Since the beginning, they took on the challenge of producing daily reports for the European Commission and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC): these reports are published periodically on their website and on their Twitter account (@BIOCOMSC1).

Based on the number of COVID-19 infections and using a mathematical model that they developed with the Centre for Comparative Medicine and Bioimaging (CMCiB) of the Germans Trias i Pujol Research Institute (IGTP), they found the equation of a curve to forecast the evolution of the pandemic. At the beginning, their model was based only on new diagnoses, but they have gradually adjusted and optimised it as data management has also improved.

 “All of a sudden, we went from conducting calm, leisurely, discreet and reflective research in tuberculosis to conducting frenetic research.”

Clara Prats

Now, a year after lockdown, the researchers look back on their experiences at the beginning of this health emergency. Clara Prats claims that ever since the pandemic broke out she has faced challenge after challenge. “As a researcher, the biggest challenge was to study a problem from within, a problem that you are part of, with all that this involved. We lacked a general perspective and prior knowledge, and we had our work dramatically changed. All of a sudden, we went from conducting calm, leisurely, discreet and reflective research in tuberculosis to conducting frenetic research that required the ability to constantly adapt to new data, knowledge and especially needs”, says Prats. According to the researcher, “as the coordinator of the group, the biggest challenge for me has been to manage all lines of work, collaborations and requests without losing track of any of them.”

Daniel López-Codina explains that “the first few weeks we started simply by satisfying our own curiosity, looking for mathematical models to help us understand the epidemiological dynamics in Chinese provinces.” But they soon found out that they could carry out an important social function, so “we ended up working a lot”, as he recalls, happy to do a job of interest to people.

It struck them like lightning. “The first months were hectic”, says Sergio Alonso, referring to the shock of having to deal with telework, the transition to virtual teaching and their new focus on mathematical epidemiology while taking care of their children. “Now we are in some way back to normal, especially since children have returned to school, but we have a great deal of hot issues and we have had to split topics.” The researcher adds: “Before the pandemic, online meetings were an interesting tool for working with Germany or Brazil, but today we are using them for almost everything, and we are a little swamped.” However, “the avalanche of work has allowed us to meet many people from different areas, which has been stimulating.”

Weaving collaborations
In recent months, Martí Català has changed the way he sees his work: “I used to do research on tuberculosis, a disease that we don’t experience from close up and that causes between 1 and 1.5 million annual deaths worldwide. COVID caused almost 2 million deaths in 2020. These figures may be close, but the impact of one disease or the other cannot be compared.” He adds: “Our research on tuberculosis never got media coverage and did not have such a big global impact. We have gone from passing unnoticed to weaving an extensive network of collaborators; we have worked in collaboration with teams in Brazil, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Commission, local governments, etc.” The pandemic has boosted their research group and “it has led us to work with excellent scientists in Catalonia and around the world”, explains Daniel López-Codina.

“The pandemic has boosted our research group and has led us to work with excellent scientists in Catalonia and around the world.”

Daniel López-Codina 

Martí Català agrees with his colleague and highlights that the BIOCOM-SC has made a significant qualitative leap from a scientific perspective. “Our research is now in the public eye and this has led to our reports and articles being analysed down to the last comma.”

Science outreach, a key element
With their experimental observations based on data and figures and using mathematical modelling, the research group is doing an admirable job to understand the transmission of COVID-19 and make epidemiological logic easier to understand. This, along with their great ability to communicate and disseminate science using a language for general audiences, has inadvertently led the BIOCOM-SC, a scientific benchmark in epidemiological analysis, to appear on media and social media in Catalonia and Spain every day. Almost every radio and television newscast and every newspaper start by naming them.

In a short time, they have managed to bring the public closer to statistics, diagrams, graphs and concepts such as the EPG index, R0, the R number and the cumulative incidence while helping to disseminate what computational models are. And, most importantly, their contributions have helped the country’s authorities to control the spread of coronavirus in Catalonia.

Without being pessimistic, the BIOCOM-SC has been acting as our collective conscience, sounding the alarm when infection rates were looking bad and publicly urging more restrictive measures to curb the virus.

Teaching scientific concepts is not easy, as Daniel López-Codina explains: “A very large part of the population has little scientific knowledge, and this often leads to a wrong vision of who we scientists are.” The researcher adds: “Explaining that we really know few things is quite difficult; they may call us ‘experts’, but there are no experts in pandemics among us. It is the first one that we have lived, and hopefully the last! And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are pseudoscientists, deniers, anti-vaxxers, etc.”

The researcher expresses his sadness and helplessness: “Every day, we spend a lot of hours working and thinking about COVID-19, a pandemic that is causing millions of deaths, destroying jobs, pushing people to poverty and increasing injustice all around the world.” He is worried “that we forget again poorer communities” and reminds us that there are other epidemics, such as malaria, causing about 230 million annual cases.

Among the members of the group, Enric Álvarez is one of the most active on Twitter and he is in charge of periodically posting analyses and forecasts using the group’s account. He is convinced that science outreach is essential: “During this pandemic, it is vital to convey the situation as clearly as possible at any time. We need to explain properly to people why they need to wear a mask, keep their distance and wash their hands, and which settings are more at risk; we believe that doing this saves lives.” It is also important to “communicate uncertainties at a given time”, according to the researcher. “We need to talk about science in general, and not just about the current situation.”

A master class in teamwork
Over the last year, the scientists of the BIOCOM-SC saw each other in person just twice. But they all agree that, as a team, they have always stuck together. “They are the people whom I have spent the most time with”, says Martí Català. “During the first wave, we had daily videocalls of more than 4 hours. The truth is that I had a great time”, adds the youngest researcher in the group. “I will never be able to thank Clara, Sergio, Dani and Enric enough for their help and everything that they have taught me. I felt like any other researcher in the group, despite my youth and inexperience.”

Clara Prats also points out that “it has been a master class in teamwork! Many things have happened and we have gone through different moments and situations. Getting organised, helping others when they could not keep up, sharing tasks and responsibilities without losing the overall approach... This has been a constant and I think that we have succeeded. We were always online and available”, explains the researcher. “We have spent hundreds of hours in videoconferences.”

Daniel López-Codina says he feels privileged: “I work with a group of friends, who are extraordinary, very intelligent people working tirelessly, guided by human values... I feel small next to them”, he concludes.

As professors, the researchers of the group are linked to the Barcelona School of Agri-Food and Biosystems Engineering (EEABB), the Castelldefels School of Telecommunications and Aerospace Engineering (EETAC) and the Barcelona School of Building Construction (EPSEB).