UP lecturer part of BRICS research project to strengthen fight against COVID-19

Posted on April 16, 2021

The Department of Informatics’ Prof Hanlie Smuts has been selected to facilitate collaboration among researchers and institutions across the member countries of the BRICS alliance as part of a project to find innovative ways to address the current health crisis.

As part of concerted efforts in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) to control and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the BRICS Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Framework Programme has allocated more than R30 million for research to strengthen the fight against the disease.

Professor Hanlie Smuts, a researcher in UP’s Department of Informatics, is one of the awardees appointed to lead a multilateral innovation research project to facilitate collaboration among researchers and institutions across the member countries of the BRICS alliance.

The research project on which Prof Smuts is the principal investigator combines the expertise of researchers in Brazil, Russia and South Africa. Titled ‘BRICS-ICT alliance for smart resource utilisation to combat global pandemic outbreaks’, the project will be known by the acronym BRICSmart. It addresses the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and information and communication technology (ICT), and how these topics may be applied to address issues around pandemics.

The collaborative research will start off by mapping the partners’ priorities, and defining the COVID-19-pandemic systems view and thematic guidance of the respective countries. The joint project has three specific objectives. The proposed contribution, priorities and objectives of each country’s research teams will be as follows:

  • The team from Brazil, led by Prof Esther Luna Colombini of the University of Campinas in São Paulo, will receive funding of 700 000 Brazilian real (USD125 000) over two years. It will focus on the correlation between symptoms and regular test results, supporting more efficient contact tracing through machine learning. The objective of this team’s research is to understand and model how contacts’ symptoms and traditional examination results relate to actual infection cases that can lead to the dissemination of the disease.
  • The team from the Russian Federation, led by Prof Vladimir Sudakov of the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics (Russian Academy of Sciences) in Moscow, will receive funding of 5 million Russian rouble (USD65 000) over two years. It will focus on the consequences of management decisions and their impact on pandemic management through multi-agent modelling, multi-criteria decision analysis and AI. The objective of this team’s research is to understand and model the interactions of citizens based on identified criteria to create and evaluate models that can inform possible solutions in support of policymaking.
  • The South African team, led by UP’s Prof Hanlie Smuts, will receive funding of R5.4 million (USD375 000) over two years. The UP research team will focus on improving the healthcare supply chain to optimally match supply and demand through system-view modelling and simulation experiments. The objective of this team’s research is to develop a simulation model to optimise supply and demand matching, and provide decision-making support to reroute health system supplies according to hotspot areas.

The digital technology associated with the constructs of prediction, modelling and simulation points to the application of AI, machine learning, modelling both space and time, and visualising real-world scenarios. Such technologies may support and facilitate pandemic strategy, preparedness and response in multiple ways, including the identification and tracking – in real time – of pandemic activity, such as individuals who might have been in contact with an infected person. Digital technologies also support global supply chain scenario planning and focus on production scheduling capability and enhancing the visibility of inbound materials.

Viewing COVID-19 through the lens of systems thinking and representation ensures that policymakers do not merely maintain a linear view of a country. Seeing the pandemic as an inter-related system will inform preparedness and smart resource utilisation strategies, and support governments to pull the right levers to get the economy and society back on track after pandemic-related shocks and crises. Furthermore, by emphasising efficiency in the operation, management and outcomes of various components of the system, smart resource utilisation may be achieved while combatting the pandemic.

The collaborative research that forms part of the joint project will start off by mapping the partners’ priorities, and defining the COVID-19-pandemic systems view and thematic guidance of the respective countries.

A total of 111 eligible proposals were submitted to the BRICS evaluation committee across all five countries in five thematic areas. Most applications focused on the research and development of COVID-19 vaccines and drugs, including repurposing available vaccines and drugs, followed by the thematic area of research and development of new technologies and tools for diagnosing COVID-19. Of the 12 joint projects selected for funding, seven have a South African component.

“South Africa enjoys privileged political and economic relations with the BRICS partners, as well as strategic cooperation in science and innovation,” said Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation. “I am delighted that we are able to harness these relations through the BRICS Framework Programme for a portfolio of impressive research and innovation projects, which will make a critical contribution to the global response to COVID-19.”

Published by Jimmy Masombuka

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