Following the joint efforts of the entire Insper Community to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, we are publishing a series of interviews with professors, managers, deans, and directors to address actions taken by our school, as well as tips and guidelines in the most diverse fields to help overcome the challenges of this period.
In the following interview, Marco Antonio Leonel Caetano, professor at Insper, explains how the Portal Covid-19 works. It is a joint effort by researchers from the Statistics, Computer Science, Physics, Mathematics, and Health Departments of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) that counts on his collaboration. The portal aims to aggregate updated information, statistical models, data visualizations, and useful links about Covid-19 in Brazil, more especially in the state of Paraná.
1) What does UFPR’s forecasting, modeling, and strategy initiative to combat Covid-19 consist of, and what are its objectives?
UFPR’s specialists in several fields, including Health, Mathematics, Physics, Computing, and Biology, constituted a group to understand more broadly what happens with the new coronavirus. The intent is that each one collaborates with texts, graphics, and computer programs at first. However, they are broadening the discussion, and each one puts in service their understanding of several topics, such as statistics for beds available in ICUs, ways of testing the population, models to estimate cases and deaths, evaluation of combat strategies, and methods for modeling and estimating parameters for disease data.
The ultimate goal is the generation of papers and publication of scientific, academic studies, besides recommendations based on projections for public bodies linked to the field of health.
2) How did you receive the invitation to take part in the initiative, and how does your collaboration work?
I have been working for 25 years on mathematical models linked to the field of infectious diseases and epidemiology. I have authored several articles and supervised masters’ projects at the Brazilian Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA) in this field. My area is known as Biomathematics and, in the beginning, I worked ten years with models for AIDS — more specifically at the cellular level, regarding the relations between HIV and CD4-T lymphocytes.
I worked a year at the reference hospital for AIDS in Vila Mariana (a neighborhood in the City of São Paulo), which was maintained by the World Bank. I obtained authorization from the ethics committee of the state of São Paulo to read and acquire data from the medical records of 60 patients, collecting more than ten years of data.
In the end, me and my friend and fellow ITA professor, Professor Takashi Yoneyama, Ph.D., had published a series of papers on AIDS treatment optimization in international journals. Besides that work, we had modeled and simulated outbreaks of dengue and influenza, among other diseases, computationally. We always had treated them from the mathematical-computational point of view.
With COVID-19’s surge, I began to estimate, since December 2019, the evolution of the disease and the possibility of its spread around the world until reaching Brazil. I warned of such danger. I disseminated the information among several friends and followers on twitter only. Those graphs and results came into the hands of a great friend from college and professor at UFPR in the field of computing, Professor Marcos Alexandre Castilho, Ph.D. He is an expert in Artificial Intelligence (AI) at UFPR’s IT department.
He told me they were thinking of creating an academic group to expand and solidify the understanding of the disease with other experts not only in modeling but in the broadest congregation of ideas that lead to the greatest understanding possible.
He also said that it would be important for me to participate in sharing knowledge and experience in the field and helping to build ideas that could generate practical and academic results. I accepted the invitation immediately.
3) What is the main information available on the http://covid.c3sl.ufpr.br/ portal?
The portal is being continuously updated, and its set-up is not yet complete. However, we launched it with the materials that each of the specialists has. The people from computing made it “on the double”, in two days. It was a fantastic job of programming the website to put data in motion that dynamically shows the spread of the new coronavirus. They had to program based on the daily reports from the Brazilian Ministry of Health. They are still programming it and downloading data from various sources to provide the best quantity and quality of information possible. The site started from scratch and is becoming more voluminous and informative every day.
There are some first documents with technical texts (some documents that I sent to them), animations of the spread of the disease, and several graphs that compare the course of the disease in Brazil to the rest of the world. The primary focus is still on the state of Paraná, but as new information comes in, ideas move to address the problem more broadly.
4) Are there already any main conclusions that you can highlight with this initiative?
Some alerts for the administrations of the state of Paraná and its capital Curitiba were made with reports translated for the general public, even more from an informative point of view and with warnings. As the group was created a month ago, nothing further or any kind of conclusion was possible. We are all studying and reading each other’s works to get to know each other and see what we can help.
5) In your view, how do initiatives like that collaborate to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our country?
The whole world is learning, and no one has a formed nor definitive idea on the subject. Techniques that were good in South Korea did not work in China. Many techniques from China do not apply to the rest of the world. The initial understanding of virus resistance is also changing. We see an increasing number of recurrences in patients who have had COVID-19. It was not anticipated in the beginning.
The constitution of a multidisciplinary group is fundamental to standardize ideas by gathering data acquisition, models, simulations, comparisons with practice in the field of health, and in the areas of information dissemination and projection of cases and deaths. One task is dissemination with different types of dashboards, websites, internet panels, and various projections.
However, a much more important and more arduous task is to understand how the virus spreads, why it resists so much, what the correlation of this resistance with the environment is, under which parameters it resists and why, when does it accelerate in infecting more people and its cause-effect relationship. Preliminary studies around the world are beginning to follow this direction, leaving aside only the dissemination of data, but seeking state of the art in science to discover the full functioning of the disease.
More groups like this should be encouraged to debate and publish, publish a lot, both in specialized journals and magazines for the general audience. It is now urgent to combat the absurd negativism of science implanted in the world. It is used by bad politicians to harm and confuse the population with fake news and put all people at risk of infection and death. It is time for science to respond and get out of its cocoon. That is why these types of knowledge groups and movements are of great importance.
Marco Antonio Leonel Caetano earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from the São Paulo State University (UNESP)’s São José do Rio Preto campus in 1987. He completed a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering at ITA in 1990 and defended his Doctoral dissertation in Aeronautical Engineering at ITA in 1995.
He worked for 12 years as a Professor, Researcher, and Consultant in Probability and Statistics at UNESP. Prof. Caetano also had served as a consultant to around 40 projects in the field of biostatistics, assisting master’s, doctorate, and lecturer projects and theses, as well as corporate initiatives.
He has papers published in international journals indexed as A levels by the Brazilian Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Level Personnel (CAPES). Prof. Caetano also authored articles for Brazilian journals and conference proceedings, as well as supervised scientific initiation projects at UNESP and undergraduate and graduate projects at ITA.
Since 2004 he is responsible for the courses that involve Information Systems at Insper. Prof. Caetano has supervised scientific initiation and capstone projects (undergraduate theses) at our school as well. He had received several honors, the main one from ABRUEM (Brazilian Association of Deans of State and Municipal Universities) for the index used for the examination of Brazilian institutions of Higher Education (the “Provão”) from 1996 to 2000.