Scientists, journalists and global health leaders discussed the role of data analytics during a pandemic at the Jameel Institute’s annual symposium.
Experts including Professor Andrew Pollard, Swedish epidemiologist Dr Anders Tegnell, and UK government scientific adviser Professor Dame Angela McLean, joined media, policymakers and academics at a virtual event to mark the second anniversary of the Jameel Institute.
The Jameel Institute, headquartered at Imperial College London, is the world’s most advanced institute for disease and emergency analytics.
Since the launch of the Institute in October 2019, the Institute has been largely focussed on analysing the impact of COVID-19 around the world.
Opening the symposium, Professor Neil Ferguson, Director of the Jameel Institute, said: “Our aim is to apply data analytics to combat disease threats worldwide. With the pandemic starting in early 2020, we have been dominated by responding to the pandemic.
"We have now published more than 100 scientific papers and reports, and carried out a lot of bilateral work with governments and international organisations to provide support to countries around the world in dealing with this very serious pandemic.”
Science and the media
"Politicians hate making u-turns but they are the lifeblood of science" Anjana Ahuja Financial Times
The first session, Communicating science in the post-truth age, explored the role of public health messaging during the pandemic and the relationships between scientists, the media and politicians.
The panellists were Anjana Ahuja, Science Commentator for the Financial Times, Professor Christian Drosten, Director of Germany’s Institute of Virology, and Nyka Alexander, Health Emergency Communications at the WHO. The session was moderated by the Science Media Centre’s Fiona Fox.
Ahuja said: “Politicians hate making u-turns but they are the lifeblood of science, if you don’t change your mind when your evidence changes then what are you doing in science? But for politicians it’s a lot harder.”
Professor Drosten explained how early on in the pandemic he decided he could make the biggest difference by starting a podcast to help inform the public about the science around coronavirus and assess the latest situations. He explained: “In science we cling to evidence, but in a situation like the pandemic, there is no evidence for many things, evidence is being created as the events happen and only months later we have formal evidence.”
The WHO’s Nyka Alexander talked about their work to counter misinformation spread on social media. Alexander said: “We often were advising people to seek sources of information that they trust, and that’s why people turn to traditional media. People react to emotional headlines…and editors are under huge pressure to make sure that headlines are a clickable lead, and sometimes that doesn’t align with the public health goal.”
"There’s already a big conversation happening in government about how we can be more scientific, and put science at the heart of decision making." Professor Dame Angela McLean Chief Scientific Advisor, Ministry of Defence
The second session, Data analytics at the science-politics interface, discussed the role that scientists have in informing policy and decision-makers.
The panellists were Dr Anders Tegnell, State Epidemiologist of Sweden, Professor Glenda Gray, President and CEO of South Africa MRC, and Professor Dame Angela McLean, the Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK’s Ministry of Defence. The session was moderated by the BBC’s Nick Robinson.
Dr Tegnell explained how in Sweden policy decisions are delegated to Agencies, that work closely with scientists. Dr Tegnell said: “The interface between political government and scientists is quite different in Sweden. Some say it gives more stability and protects politicians to an extent from having input from many sides, it gives them a safety net to filter and make a judgement on the science coming out.”
Dame Angela explained how SAGE has helped inform decision making in the UK and how science and data may play a greater role in policymaking in the future. Dame Angela said: “The pandemic has affected how data and analytics might inform policy in the future. There’s already a big conversation happening in government about how we can be more scientific, and put science at the heart of decision making.”
Professor Gray spoke about the social and economic costs of a hard-lockdown policy in South Africa. Professor Gray said: "A lot of people had adverse affects from the hard lockdown. There is discussion about whether we should have gone for a more risk adjusted approach, which we have since introduced. Hopefully we've managed to balance social support and preventing loss of lives."
Partnerships and the global response to COVID-19
"I think we have an opportunity to prepare the world for much better preparedness for future threats" Richard Hatchett CEO of CEPI
The third session Partnerships and equity in the global response to COVID: success or failure?, assessed how successful international partnerships have been in the global response to the pandemic.
The panellists were Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director of Africa, Sir Andrew Pollard, Professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity at the University of Oxford. The session was moderated by Amanda Glassman, Executive Vice President, CEO of CGD Europe, and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development.
Dr Moeti talked about the challenges of rolling out COVID-19 vaccines across Africa where some countries have lower capacity. She said: “Half the countries in Africa are having to carry out polio vaccine campaigns at the same time and this is something they can’t stop, they have to continue. For low-capacity countries we have to simplify what they have to do.”
Sir Andrew said there had been good international collaboration in areas such as vaccine development and trials. Sir Andrew said: “The genetic code of the virus was sent all round the world on January 11th last year, before we even knew there was going to be a pandemic. Working with partners in Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, and countries in Asia on clinical trials, really helped to move the agenda forward.”
Sir Andrew added that local manufacturing capacity, in places such as Africa, would be needed to improve vaccine equity. He said: "The necessity of national governments to protect their population does, to some extent, gets in the way of the ability to equitably distribute vaccines, so you do need to have production locally.”
Dr Richard Hatchett agreed, saying: "The only way to show equity in the future is to move beyond a world where vaccine manufacturing is concentrated in the US, Europe, India and China, because those are huge population pools which will absorb a huge of vaccines, and will lead to this emerging gap that those country that have vaccine capabilities.
“I am very encouraged by the efforts under the Africa Union, for example, and other regional entities, to stand up and to ensure vaccine manufacturing is in place.”
Dr Hatchett also highlighted some of the benefits that have emerged from the pandemic. Richard said: “We've seen advances in technology, we've seen innovations in clinical trial design and regulation.
"We’ve also seen the important emergence of regional mutual security efforts…If we take advantage of those opportunities that are emerging from the pandemic and we look objectively at what created the outcomes that we've got, which are unacceptable, I think we have an opportunity to prepare the world for much better preparedness for future threats.”
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