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16 August 2022

AITHM infectious diseases mathematical modeller, Professor Emma McBryde, is part of two international teams assisting countries in the South-East Asian and Western Pacific regions, including Australia, to calculate their next moves in the battle against COVID-19, as well as longstanding threats such as tuberculosis.

She is a chief investigator with SPECTRUM, (Supporting Participatory Evidence generation to Control Transmissible diseases in our Region Using Modelling). Established just one year before the pandemic was declared in 2020, this Centre of Research Excellence, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, has provided key advisors to the Australian Government and several state governments on COVID-19 control measures.

Professor McBryde is also an affiliate of SPARK (Strengthening Preparedness in the Asia-Pacific Region through Knowledge), a partner of SPECTRUM. Funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, SPARK is a consortium of research institutes from around Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, focussed on building the capacity of countries to control infectious diseases.

Effective disease control begins with informed decision making. SPECTRUM and SPARK epidemiological experts such as Professor McBryde are working collaboratively with countries to better equip them to make those decisions, guided by evidence – primarily generated through mathematical and statistical modelling calibrated to reflect a country’s current outbreak status and calculate the likely impacts/efficacy of intervention measures under consideration.

In the case of COVID-19, these range from prioritising specific groups for vaccinations to mandating the use of face masks and/or instigating lockdowns.

Decisions on which interventions to employ – and when – are more difficult for countries with fragile health systems and limited resources. But inactivity is not an option.

“Epidemics behave exponentially, but decision makers sort of ... we all live on a more linear scale. So it can't be overemphasized how important it is to do things early rather than late,” said Professor McBryde. “We help inform decision makers about where the money should go, how much to use, and how effective it is likely to be.”

AITHM is well placed to assist in these endeavours. It has longstanding relationships with many of Pacific Island countries, some dating back decades.

More recently, these include initiatives to strengthen capacity in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, eastern Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea (PNG); investigate pandemic preparedness and surveillance across the Pacific Islands; and assist Fiji in health workforce planning. AITHM also has valuable long-term partnerships with the PNG Institute for Medical Research, particularly in the field of malaria research.

“Our footprint in this region is really important,” said Professor McBryde.

That footprint is helping to pave the way for regional neighbours to develop their own tools to assess infectious disease intervention options.

In early July, Professor McBryde helped to conduct a SPARK intensive five-day infectious disease modelling workshop in Bangkok. It attracted around 30 epidemiologists, from as far afield as the Philippines, India and Nepal, as well Thailand. Participants included PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as Philippines Department of Health staff and officers from World Health Organization bases in the region.

Organised by Bangkok-based SPARK member, Pan-Ngum Wirichada, an Associate Professor in the Department of Tropical Hygiene at Mahidol University, the workshop, held on campus, challenged participants to develop a retrospective infectious disease model for the first wave of COVID-19 in Thailand.

“The aim was to introduce the participants to population infectious disease dynamic models; the tools, the thought processes and the methods,” said Professor McBryde.

“We can’t turn them into fully fledged modelers within the space of one week, but they will be able to go home and utilise what they have learned and hopefully build upon those skills and then pass them on to others at future workshops.

“The ultimate goal is to hand over the planning and delivery of these workshops to the host country. To be able to say, ‘You’re doing it. You can use our skeleton curriculum and make it good, make it yours’.”

SPARK has received requests to conduct similar workshops in Indonesia and Nepal. A workshop is already scheduled to be held on the JCU Cairns campus, next year.

SPARK and SPECTRUM are seeking to nurture connections both with and between fledgling disease modellers. A shared email group is already in place to facilitate communication between workshop participants and teachers. A mentorship program is also in the wings.

“Apart from the workshops, SPARK and SPECTRUM offer opportunities for things like seed funding and fellowships, where people can identify a mentor and a project they wish to undertake in collaboration,” said Professor McBryde.

“We may also establish a peer support group, where people can say, ‘I’m trying to use this (modelling) code, but I’m having a problem’. And others can help them out.

“We want to continue the momentum,” she said.

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