Epidemiology – what it is and how it’s mapping the spread of COVID-19

Crowd of people with face masks - illustration

The medical and scientific community is developing new ways to model the COVID-19 outbreak and spread. But what does it all involve?

That’s where epidemiology comes in. Epidemiology is the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why, and the application of this analysis to the control of diseases and other health problems.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a vital area of research that’s leading to swift, responsive action.

Modelling the pandemic

Take, for example, the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (GIDA).

Led by Professor Neil Ferguson, GIDA is one of the organisations at the forefront of delivering timely epidemiology analysis that informs policy responses to emerging infectious disease threats.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, GIDA was awarded an additional £500,000 to support its real-time analysis and modelling of the pandemic and the impact of COVID-19.

Outbreak analytics

Epidemiology analytics is also a significant element of the work being done in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have been awarded funding to help understand the dynamics and drivers of the COVID-19 epidemic using real-time outbreak analytics.

Led by Professor John Edmunds, this crucial study is jointly funded between MRC and the National Institute for Health Research.

This study is key because an efficient response to COVID-19 requires an understanding of the epidemiological and behavioural drivers of disease transmission. So, as COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, it means the analyses of epidemic drivers and policy evaluation need constant updating to provide relevant data-driven evidence to inform evolving public health choices.

To do this, Professor Edmunds and his team will provide rapid, continually updated estimates of key epidemiological features such as disease severity and transmissibility measures.

It’s a study that will have a direct impact as, crucially, all findings will immediately inform UK policy through his participation in UK government advisory committees.

MRC’s epidemiology studies

It’s these projects and more that highlight just how MRC’s units, institutes and centres are working hard to create epidemiology studies that can help in the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of these units is the MRC Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge. Their researchers are developing something called ‘Nowcasting’.

Nowcasting is the prediction of the present and is the methodology for real-time tracking of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is vital work.

Working closely with Public Health England, the researchers are using a transmission model, data on daily COVID-19 confirmed deaths, information on the risk of dying, and the time from infection to death, to reconstruct the number of new COVID-19 infections over time.

Not only will this help to estimate a measure of ongoing transmission (R), but it will also predict the number of new COVID-19 deaths in different regions and age groups – helping inform the public health response to the outbreak by providing the R0 and attack rates by region. The R0 tells you the average number of people who will contract a contagious disease from one person with that disease.

Vital COVID-19 research

The work across the MRC’s units, institutes and centres to understand COVID-19 is on-going.

As the pandemic continues, MRC-funded researchers and their UKRI colleagues are working hard to develop new ways to model the COVID-19 outbreak and spread. Read more about their vital work below.

MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, scientists at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol have been engaging with research and discussion on the epidemiology, public health responses and data collection and analytical challenges.

MRC Epidemiology Unit

Several of the staff at the MRC Epidemiology Unit – University of Cambridge are now helping directly with the COVID-19 crisis, working in clinical, public health or lab testing settings.

Meanwhile, members of the unit’s global public health research team are leading efforts to crowdsource the translation of World Health Organisation facts on Coronavirus into as many African languages as possible.

The unit is also undertaking major COVID-19-related research.

MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit

The MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton studies the risk factors and determinants of chronic musculoskeletal disorders, diabetes mellitus and the metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease, across life from conception to old age.

It also investigates potential underlying mechanisms and aims to translate these findings into novel strategies to improve human health. COVID-19 research now is a vital part of these studies.

MRC Biostatistics Unit

Using statistical modelling, analyses, and design, the MRC Biostatistics Unit – University of Cambridge is providing estimates of key epidemic quantities for an improved understanding of COVID-19 and its effects.

The research is also providing support for improved management of patients and the triaging of resources, along with evidence for the impact of clinical interventions.

Last updated: 28 October 2020

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