How a ‘powerful collaboration’ saved lives during COVID

The use in Chile of advanced statistical tools to process high volumes of data related to the COVID pandemic saved at least 2,800 lives, avoided more than 65,000 infections and saved more than US$200 million.

The tools used were so effective that Chile was awarded the 2022 Franz Edelman Award, given each year by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management of Sciences (INFORMS), the world’s largest association related to sciences for data management and decision-making.

The tools were used to monitor the mobility of the population during COVID lockdowns, to optimise the search for asymptomatic cases in highly affected areas, to monitor antibody responses to the various COVID-19 vaccines in various age groups and risk profiles, and to make projections about the number of critical beds in use in order to assign COVID patients to hospitals nationwide.

In early May 2020, the number of cases started to mount rapidly in Chile as well as the number of very serious cases. This led to the saturation of intensive care services – the use of intensive care beds reached 97% of national capacity and demand was two times higher than hospital capacity in some regions.

It was in this difficult scenario that the Ministry of Science asked Chile’s Institute of Complex Engineering Systems (ISCI for its Spanish acronym) and academics from the Universidad de Chile to develop a system to forecast numbers of critical patients in order to allocate them to hospitals and, in some cases, transfer them between cities.

The system used ministry of science data and a series of methods that combined auto-regressive automated learning and epidemiological models in order to make one to two week-long forecasts.

These forecasts were shared with members of the National Crisis Table, charged with planning hospital capacity. The same methodology was used during the second wave of infections in March to May 2021, but the model was expanded to include vaccination campaign data.

Institutional cooperation

The innovative solutions listed above were developed by researchers from the Institute of Complex Engineering Systems and the University of Chile, in collaboration with the ministries of health and science, technology and innovation and the communications company Entel. The latter used advanced analytics to process large volumes of anonymous mobility data from geo-localised mobile phones.

These data and algorithms were integrated in the so-called COVID Analytics platform, a tool that identified the displacement of people in the country and the degree to which lockdowns were observed.

This development gave way to the implementation of a system to optimise the search for asymptomatic patients in higher-risk areas which, in turn, made it possible to prioritise the limited test resources.

At present, the risk index is available to the 16 regional health authorities and the 29 health services that make up Chile’s public health system. The index is used to plan the search of asymptomatic cases.

The strategy against SARS-Cov-2 included vaccinating Chileans with the CoronaVac inactivated virus and Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines.

To measure how effective these vaccines were in different age groups and people with different risk profiles in order to assign priorities and assess the need for boosters, ISCI researchers and Universidad de Chile’s Faculty of Medicine entered into an agreement with the ministry of health with the aim of overseeing the antibody response to the different types of vaccines.

To date, the project has collected samples of more than 110,000 people all over Chile. The results prompted the decision to administer a booster starting in August 2021.

Relevance for public policy

The cooperation among these institutions also gave way to a series of interconnected projects that had enormous relevance for COVID-related public policies and had a positive effect on the evolution of the pandemic.

“These innovations were used in key decisions that helped with the three pillars of the Chilean strategy against the virus: preventing contagions, centralised management of critical beds and vaccination,” said former undersecretary of public health in Chile Paula Daza.

Daza was part of the Chilean delegation that received the Franz Edelman Award in Houston, Texas on 4 April.

The prize is given to the world’s best applied engineering intervention that has contributed to improving the efficiency of organisations, to increase earnings and savings, to develop better consumer products and to save lives and, this year, it was awarded to Chile’s ISCI for its COVID-19 applications.

Other finalists were the Chinese internet dealer Alibaba, the US Census Bureau, General Motors and the pharmaceutical companies Janssen and Merck Animal Health. Last year the prize was awarded to the United Nations World Food Programme.

Support for decision-making

“The pandemic highlighted the need to use science and analytics in the management of public policies to better back decision-making,” said Chile’s former minister of science, Andrés Couve.

Couve also said that the award “shows the importance of investing in science, innovation and technology”.

“The link between government and academia represented by ISCI, and the private sector, represented by Entel, was a powerful collaboration that managed to place operative research at the forefront, providing clear guidance for the advance planning of non-pharmaceutical interventions, for the management of scarce resources such as beds for very ill patients, for massive and efficient testing and for a better understanding of the long-term effects of vaccines,” he added.

Begoña Yarza, Chile’s Health Minister, said that “the government is very enthusiastic about continuing these collaborations, using science and analytics to back decision-making in connection with the great public health challenges that our country and the world must face”.

For his part, Chile’s Science Minister Flavio Salazar, said: “I believe that, to have obtained an international award … gives us prestige and drives us to carry on promoting knowledge in our country.”

This article relates to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages and the target 3.d: Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks. You can find out more about Agenda 2030, the SDGs and the 169 targets for implementing them here.