The University of Western Australia’s COVID-19 “virtual world” computer model – successfully used to flatten the curve in WA and determine health care demand – is now providing other countries with much-needed evidence-based strategies to safely exit social distancing without a rebound in virus cases.
The world-leading computer model was developed by UWA’s research team headed by disease modelling expert Professor George Milne, from Computer Science and Software Engineering.
Findings from the UWA individual-based simulation model provide valuable, effective staged exit strategies for those parts of the world experiencing high levels of coronavirus transmission.
These strategies have been shown to balance workplace return and community interaction without a rebound in COVID-19 cases over the next nine months, with study results recently published in MedRxiv.
The study demonstrates the necessity of holding robust social distancing in place for as long as 14 weeks until COVID-19 virus transmission has significantly decreased and the importance of a staged relaxation of social distancing, even in low transmission countries such as Australia.
Throughout the pandemic, UWA’s COVID-19 “virtual world” disease model has been used extensively by the Health Department in Western Australia to predict the future level of infection in WA, prepare for worst-case scenarios and to test in advance the impact of winding back social distancing restrictions and opening up the border.
If WA experiences a sudden Victoria-style runaway outbreak, the UWA model will be able to provide a rapid understanding of how to knock out the virus, where to test and what suburbs to close down, while still keeping the economy running.
Developed with great speed at the start of the pandemic by Professor Milne’s UWA research team, the COVID-19 computer model is an adaption of an established UWA seasonal influenza disease model based on the 270,000-strong population of Newcastle in New South Wales.
It uses COVID-19 transmission data from Hubei Province in China which was collected early before containment measures were activated.
Commissioned to work with WA’s COVID response team, the UWA team used their model to provide a quick insight into the potential effectiveness of a range of social distancing measures, including interventions as precise as closing down a limited number of schools or workplaces.
“While WA has eliminated coronavirus infections, when WA opens up its border we will have to learn to live with low levels of virus transmission and we are probably going to get cases bubbling up,” Professor Milne said.
“The UWA computer modelling technology allows us to predict where people will become infected – in the household, in specific workplaces, in the wider community – and that means we can reduce where that contact is occurring using various social distancing measures and determine where testing is most needed.”
Having eased back on all restrictions, WA needs to take the Melbourne COVID-19 runaway outbreak as a wake-up call, according to Professor Milne.
“We need to remain poised and ready to act within hours – with rapid response and road block teams on call and booze-bus-style COVID testing ready at hand,” he said.
Professor Milne suggests that community-wide education should begin now to ensure the WA public was prepared well in advance to play its part, ready to cope with suburbs being quickly locked down and newly gained freedoms wound back for a period, if required.
“What has happened in Victoria is a series of unfortunate events and it is very important that other states learn from it,” he said.
“We need the causes and reasons to be made generally known so that if this happens in another state, and if the government takes severe measures in response to a new outbreak, then our community can understand why these measures are necessary.”
This story is part of the series Computer modelling COVID-19 spread critical to flattening the curve.