At Swansea University, mathematicians fight a global pandemic

BrandPost By Derek Rattansey
Sep 08, 2021
IT Leadership

Drawing on the power of high performance computing, Welsh researchers create a platform for modeling the spread of the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Credit: iStock

Swansea University is a research-driven university that has been making a profound impact on people’s lives since 1920. The University community thrives on exploration and discovery, and strives to offer an ideal balance of excellent teaching and research, matched by an outstanding quality of life.

As part of its mission, Swansea University is committed to conducting research with real-world benefits — research that changes the world and saves lives. To that end, Swansea University Research Software Engineers Ed Bennett and Ben Thorpe, Epidemiologist Professor Mike Gravenor and Mathematics Professor Biagio Lucini — are part of a major research initiative that is investigating the mechanisms that influence the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the deadly disease that it causes.

This is about much more than theoretical science. This is about using scientific modeling and simulation to give government the guidance they need to prevent surges of pandemic patients from overwhelming hospitals — so all people can get the care they need. This is about using the power of math to change the world.

An open platform for pandemic modeling

Mathematical modeling of infectious disease transmission is an important tool in forecasting future trends of pandemics. However, different models tend to give different results. And that’s why it’s important to look at problems from many directions, according to Prof. Lucini, leader of the University’s research software engineering team.

“To draw robust conclusions from modeling, it is important to consider multiple models, which can be facilitated by expanding the modeling community, as model predictions reflect the assumptions on which they are developed, and by bringing models and developers together to compare and contrast their findings,” he says.

To that end, the Swansea project aims to not only empower the next generation of modelers, but also to act as an incubator for an open platform for comparisons of different infectious disease models. This platform is helping researchers determine demographic, socioeconomic and clinical risk factors for infection, morbidity and the mortality of COVID-19 — and save lives along the way. It can also enable researchers to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the use of healthcare resources and the effect on long-term health, while supporting the evaluation of natural experiments of policy interventions.

“We launched this project at the request of the Welsh government, and in collaboration with local epidemiologists,” Prof. Lucini says. “The purpose of this project is to create scenarios for the ways in which infections of COVID-19 evolve in Wales, so that the government can better understand how to react to such potential surges.”

In these efforts, the Swansea research team is modeling how the COVID-19 infection spreads, the effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions and of social restrictions, such as closing pubs, restaurants and schools. This multi-faceted approach recognizes that infections stem both from the nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and our social interactions, which greatly influence the spread of the disease.

The Supercomputing Wales connection

To determine the potential spread of infections, Prof. Lucini and his colleagues leverage a lot of high-powered math, including algorithms that describe how the virus infects people and those they come in contact with. In this work, the research team members are essentially innovating with data by creating various “what-if” scenarios based on different assumptions.

For these computationally-intensive investigations, the COVID-19 researchers at Swansea University tap into the high performance computing resources of Supercomputing Wales, the national supercomputing research facility for Wales. These resources from Supercomputing Wales include supercomputer hubs based at Swansea and Cardiff universities. These systems — built by Dell Technologies and others — contain more than 13,000 cores, tens of terabytes of memory and hundreds of terabytes of high performance storage, all interconnected by low-latency/high-bandwidth networking.

With its high-powered HPC resources, Supercomputing Wales is facilitating a step change in supercomputing activity across strategically important sectors of the Welsh economy — including life sciences and health; nano-scale materials and advanced engineering; and energy and the environment. A commonality to these diverse domains is a shared need for leading-edge HPC facilities to drive computational science — and potentially life-changing discoveries.

“If I can synthesize everything in a sentence or two, I would say we often think of mathematics as something that is very abstract and supercomputing as something that is for specialists, which may or may not be true,” Prof. Lucini says. “What I like people to remember is that mathematics and supercomputing can and do save lives.”

For the full story, see the Dell Technologies case study “Innovating with data — to fight a global pandemic.”