Looking for COVID-19 trends: Academic experts and private forecasting company form pandemic partnership

Some of Canada’s top academic experts on pandemics are partnering with a company in the Greater Toronto Area to work on national and provincial pandemic forecasts, including modelling different scenarios to help guide officials on how COVID-19 vaccination programs might be rolled out in the new year. 

The University of Toronto’s Institute for Pandemics (IFP) will integrate analysis from the COVID-19 forecasting platform developed by Scarsin Corporation of Markham, Ont., into its ongoing advisory work with public health officials. 

The partnership will involve sharing information and collaborating on analysis, but there’s no financial element to the agreement.

Scarsin’s forecasting system will help the IFP “talk meaningfully about trends across Canada,” said Dr. David Fisman, the IFP’s lead expert on pandemic modelling, an epidemiologist and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“I think it’s a phenomenal service that they’re doing,” said Fisman. “They’re thinking about the same issues we’re thinking about.” 

Scarsin’s model will readily allow for comparisons between coronavirus hotspots such as B.C.’s Fraser Valley and Ontario’s Peel Region.

Dr. David Fisman is an an epidemiologist and infectious disease modeller with the University of Toronto’s Institute for Pandemics. (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto)

Fisman is also excited by the company’s use of mobility data from Apple, Facebook and Google, “which we haven’t incorporated into our models, and is tremendously useful.”  

A forecast or model about how an infectious disease is spreading is a projection of how many people will become infected, based on demographics, testing numbers, positivity rates and more.  

Forecasts for COVID-19 have been used to help leaders choose measures to contain the virus and predict when hospitals could be overwhelmed with patients. 

Pivoting the business

As reported by CBC News, Scarsin pivoted its business in March to focus on creating a COVID-19 modelling system that can produce localized forecasts for the 92 health regions across the country and consolidate them to create a national model.   

The 18-year-old company specializes in creating forecasts for the pharmaceutical industry and counts international drug makers Bayer, Eli Lilly, Gilead, Jansen and Pfizer are among its clients.

A closeup of a page inside the Scarsin COVID-19 forecasting system in November 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Scarsin CEO Paul Minshull said the fact that infectious disease experts from the University of Toronto “recognized right away the benefit this could bring to Canadian decision-makers” brings validation to the pandemic work his company has done since March.  

He’s hopeful that teaming up with IFP will influence the decisions politicians make about health measures in a positive way.         

“The Institute for Pandemics is going to be able to help frame the kind of analysis you should be doing,” said Minshull.  “And they can interpret those results and communicate implications to public health.”

Priority projects include vaccinations models

Minshull said one of the first issues Scarsin and the IFP will collaborate on is “looking at hotspots and how different approaches to interventions can help bring them under control.”

They also want to look at how different parts of the country have approached common problems with interventions because “there’s a long way still to go on COVID. And we need to be learning from the best practices and the mistakes that have been made to this point,” he said. 

Both parties are eager to look at how different scenarios for vaccine distribution could play out in the effort to slow and stop the pandemic.

Fisman said he’s encouraged that Scarsin has a vaccine module built into its model and is waiting for real data entry so predictions can be generated.  

Once older people and high-risk individuals have been vaccinated, Fisman said, “it becomes more of an interesting issue, should we prioritize this region or that region, prioritize this group or that group. So modelling will be useful for that.”

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Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada, talks to The National’s Andrew Chang about the approval process for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and which vaccine candidate could be approved next. 3:32

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, agrees. He reviewed Scrarsin’s forecasting system for CBC News last month.  

He said models are an essential part of a vaccine deployment strategy.  

“It’s all rolled in together,” said Deonandan. “We need to know when will our reproduction numbers start to diminish as a result of vaccine penetration so we can predict when we can remove certain mitigation tools like by mask-wearing, and distancing and limited gatherings.” 

Possible turning point for company

Fisman moved to establish an IFP partnership with Scarsin after his colleague at the IFP, Ashleigh Tuite, also an epidemiologist and infectious disease modelling expert, introduced him to the company.   

Tuite was one of four experts CBC News asked to evaluate the company’s COVID-19 forecasting system last month.  

University of Ottawa epidemiologist Dr. Raywat Deonandan says ongoing COVID-19 forescasts are an essential part of a vaccine deployment strategy. (CBC)

“Our reaction on looking at their stuff was like, holy smoke, where have these guys been?” she said.

Over the course of the pandemic, Fisman said, academic disease modellers have been “bombarded” by requests from public health units for local “one-off” models that they didn’t have the capacity to handle, but Scarsin’s system can.     

The company’s COVID-19 model can be updated daily and tracks 70 possible parameters, more than models published by Ottawa or Ontario.  

Checking social interactions

It also uses location data released by Apple, Facebook and Google to assess if people are reducing social interactions in line with public health directives.  

Minshull said the business has spent $1.6 million on the system, but Scarsin has struggled to get health officials to look at its model.

Efforts to get officials with the Public Health Agency of Canada to meet with them failed, as did an application to a federal program looking for prototypes “to help combat current and future outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.”

Minshull’s company spent $1.6 million on developing a COVID-19 forecasting system. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

After encouragement by Ontario government officials in the spring, Scarsin applied to the Ontario Together Fund, a $50-million program to help companies advance ideas or products to battle COVID-19. 

To date, it hasn’t received a reply, but did get a meeting with a member of Premier Doug Ford’s staff after an introduction by Fisman.  

Currently, only Ontario’s York region, an area north of Toronto that includes nine cities with a combined population of about 1.2 million, is using Scarsin’s platform.

Recently, Minshull said, talks have opened with several other regions in the province.

“We’re extremely excited to show them what we can do.” 

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