How the global simulation modelling community can help reduce the impact of COVID-19

A recent research paper has initiated a call to arms for the modelling and simulation community to deal with COVID-19. The paper, developed by an inter-disciplinary team of academics which includes experts from four business schools, presents challenges and opportunities of the pandemic, with the principal challenge being the need for the modelling and simulation community to come together to solve the right problems. The paper's key findings are outlined below.

COVID-19 looks set to be the worst infectious disease pandemic of a generation in terms of numbers infected, mortality, and the unprecedented demand for healthcare services. As of 30 April 2020 more than 3m people globally have tested positive for the disease with a death rate currently running at around 7% and 30% recovered to date, according to WHO data. The economic consequences from organisational shutdowns and other measures taken, such as school closures, are just beginning to manifest. It has also become clear that recovering from this pandemic will require careful consideration and planning.

Governments appear to have relied heavily on epidemiological computer simulations to determine the spread of COVID-19; to flatten the growth curve of the disease and to reduce the pressure on the healthcare systems. However the pandemic raises many more challenges that other types of computer simulation could be equally useful in addressing. The modelling and simulation community should now consider their role in contributing to both improving the understanding of the disease and planning to make better decisions that reduce its impact. The virtual modelling environment provides the opportunity to play out different scenarios rather than experimenting on the real population and, in developing the models, often helps to engender a much better understanding of the system as a whole.

The paper, published as an open-access article in the Journal of Simulation (Currie et al 2020), identifies a set of problems raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and particularly suited to simulation modelling. For each, the authors describe the problem, how it might be modeled and any specific data requirements, the aim being to provide modelers and decision makers with some initial ideas of what could be done. For example, during the pandemic there will be a large number of services that care for vulnerable and unwell members of society that will come under considerable pressure. Indeed, a major concern within a pandemic are difficulties accessing health services. Patient transport providers and suppliers of regular medical services, such as dialysis, need to reorganise their services to protect patients from potential infection. Simulation modelling has been shown to be useful in addressing these sort of problems. Aside from identifying problems the article also proposes a research agenda for the simulation modelling community.

A key proposed area for research is how to develop a virtual environment for collaboration between modelers and also between modelers and decision makers. This would involve imagining and developing a virtual Bletchley Park. Bletchley Park in the UK was the home of the WW2 codebreakers made famous through the work of Alan Turing. It offered a physical setting for teams from diverse backgrounds to collaborate on wicked coding problems emerging from the war, such as cracking the Enigma. Whilst the majority of codebreakers were British, other allied forces were also present at Bletchley.

What this shows is that good teams help to solve difficult problems. In this pandemic, the teams are, by necessity, virtual and, due to the global reach of COVID-19, international. Indeed, the paper itself was the result of a collaboration of seven simulation experts from five different universities. The paper was discussed and developed using online/remote communication forums and document sharing, and spanned two different time zones with all meetings taking place in the evening due to home schooling and online academic teaching commitments. However, there were challenges in equipment and communication, which also need to be resolved to enable creativity and good communication. The aim of this is to bring the community together and to create momentum, as well as capacity, to better deal with disasters such as COVID-19 by shaping, sharing and supporting good practice, good models and research findings.

Dr Kathy Kotiadis, Director of Graduate Studies (Research) at Kent Business School, is one of the report authors, commenting, "The aim of this is to bring the community together and to create momentum, as well as capacity, to better deal with disasters such as COVID-19 by shaping, sharing and supporting good practice, good models and research findings."

The paper can be viewed online for free here.

Christine S.M. Currie, John W. Fowler, Kathy Kotiadis, Thomas Monks, Bhakti Stephan Onggo, Duncan A. Robertson & Antuela A. Tako (2020) How simulation modelling can help reduce the impact of COVID-19, Journal of Simulation, DOI: 10.1080/17477778.2020.1751570