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COVID-19 Modelling: The Story Behind the Headline

Despite our ability to adapt and science’s best efforts to keep up, unpredictable variables have made forecasting the pandemic’s future outcomes a challenge.

To understand the COVID-19 pandemic in the face of uncertain factors, the CIA put together a Pandemic Modelling Project Team to analyze scenarios for Ontario where key assumptions are varied, and to present outcomes of the pandemic in the research paper The Future of COVID-19 in Ontario: Variants, Vaccines, and Avoiding Future Waves.

But the unique story of collaboration behind the headline is just as interesting.

Struck with an idea

In May 2020, while watching the news, Jacques Leduc, CPA, CMA and Associate Director, Membership and People Management at the CIA, was struck with the idea: How can actuaries use their skills to further contribute to research around COVID-19? 

“Throughout the pandemic I’d noticed consistent reference to epidemiological models developed by the medical community,” says Jacques. “Given actuaries’ expertise in predictive analytics and risk modelling, I knew this was an area where the profession could step in and shine.” Jacques approached the CIA’s Research Council (REC) with a project proposal to develop a COVID model based on actuarial methods – a proposition met quickly with approval.

After working through several ideas, the key theme that kept emerging was uncertainty. With ever-changing policies, seasonality, variants, and vaccine uptake, answering questions like: “What will late 2021/early 2022 look like?” seemed impossible.

“As actuaries, we have principles and approaches for working through this uncertainty,” explains Garett Klus, FCIA, member of the CIA Pandemic Modelling Project Team. “We wanted to provide a way of understanding the pandemic and the factors that drive it by exploring various potential futures to understand what the common themes are across different scenarios.” 

Recognizing that many models had already been developed, the scope of the analysis was to leverage an existing model to provide additional insights into risk assessment and the mitigation of COVID-19. With permission to use an existing “susceptible-exposed-infectious-recovered” framework for Ontario, the CIA’s project team incorporated additional factors that influenced the spread of COVID-19, such as updated experience and assumptions from Ontario data, vaccination data, and government interventions.

Collaborating for success

“This team was amazing to work with. Having the Project Oversight Group available for assurance we were on the right track and a few nudges in the right direction was crucial for ensuring the result was as meaningful as possible.”

Garett Klus, FCIA

At the onset, the CIA recruited volunteers interested in the project from a high level but quickly recognized the need for volunteers who were working closely with models in R. This meant adjusting recruitment for a younger cohort of studying and practicing actuaries. Comprised of both ACIAs and new FCIAs, this new group offered up-to-date knowledge on how to leverage the existing model, while the original group evolved to become the Project Oversight Group (along with other CIA members and volunteers), providing wisdom and guidance to the papers’ authors – a synergy resulting in a successful dynamic: one group to develop the model and another to challenge it.

“This team was amazing to work with,” reflects Klus on his experience. “Having the Project Oversight Group available for assurance we were on the right track and a few nudges in the right direction was crucial for ensuring the result was as meaningful as possible.”

But that was just the beginning of this collaborative journey. Many others were involved:

Once the first draft was nearing completion, the REC and Dr. Shlomit Jacobson, CIA Program Manager, Research, provided the authors with feedback on how best to present a paper with impact.

Given the newness of the topic, the REC also decided that an extensive peer review be undertaken; a call to action which our volunteers answered quickly. The paper was reviewed by eighteen volunteers (CIA Members, data scientists and university professors) and the CIA Committee on Predictive Modelling, all of whom contributed to strengthening the paper’s findings.

Following review and approval by the REC, the Public Affairs Council recognized the exciting and potential impact of the findings, and developed a public-oriented insight statement, Modelling the Future of COVID-19 in Ontario, to support promotion of the research.

The support of the CIA Communications Department cannot go unmentioned. Instrumental in this process, the communications team worked to ensure every word of the research paper, insight statement, press release, and articles related to its publication and dissemination met the CIA’s highest standard.

What started as a straightforward idea, that actuaries have something to contribute to important COVID-19 dialogues, blossomed into a substantial collaborative effort from CIA volunteers and staff. 

“Connecting within the organization, via word of mouth and working together side-by-side, we were able to create something both unique and useful for the public, decision makers, and actuaries, at no cost,” remarks Jacques proudly. “The success of this project truly shows the greatness that can happen when working together.”

Read our special CIA insight statement, Modelling the Future of COVID-19 in Ontario, for a summary of the key findings for decision-makers.

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