i-sense has received £500,000 in funding from the Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC) to urgently assist with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team, led by i-sense Director Prof Rachel McKendry (UCL) in collaboration with researchers from University College London Hospital, Imperial College London, University of Leeds, in partnership with Public Health England and the World Health Organization (WHO), aim to address key challenges associated with tracking and testing the COVID-19 pandemic; namely early identification of infection in the community through online data sources and development of point-of-care diagnostic tests linked to national health systems.
The current landscape
In the absence of a vaccine or treatment, the world has been forced to respond to the pandemic with extreme social distancing measures, and in many countries a complete lockdown, in order to prevent onward transmission and protect vulnerable populations.
In a media briefing on 22 April 2020, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom cautions that “this virus remains extremely dangerous” and “we have a long way to go.”
“There must be a ‘new normal’ – a world that is healthier, safer and better prepared,” says Dr Tedros.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the WHO have been advocating for six public health measures to respond to the pandemic:
- Find every case
- Isolate every case
- Test every case
- Care for every case
- Trace and quarantine every contact, and;
- And educate, engage and empower your people.
“There is an urgent need to detect the spread of COVID-19 in the community and to significantly widen access to testing,” says Prof McKendry.
“The World Health Organization has called on countries to increase testing, especially as evidence shows there is a large portion of the population that are asymptomatic, which risks onward transmission.”
Adapting i-sense research
i-sense researchers are focusing on two main areas in support of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Developing online syndromic epidemiological intelligence systems to track COVID-19 using online search data
i-sense researchers from University College London, led by Dr Vasileios Lampos, in collaboration with Public Health England, Microsoft Research, and Harvard Medical School are looking at ways of tracking COVID-19 using online search data using machine learning models to better understand the true extent of community spread.
“This research could help to better understand community spread by identifying potential positive cases from individuals that may never present to their doctor,” says Dr Vasileios Lampos, Principal Research Fellow at the UCL Department of Computer Science.
“Outcomes of this project are given directly to Public Health England on a weekly basis.”
More information can be found here.
- Building smartphone-connected COVID-19 diagnostic tests to widen access to testing of front-line health-workers, and patients
New point-of-care diagnostic tests are rapidly being adapted to detect the presence of COVID-19 in a much shorter timeframe and without the need for specialist lab equipment.
"Smartphone connected diagnostics will aim to test at the point-of-care and connect results to health databases in real-time, with geo-linked information to help identify ‘hotspots,’” says Prof Molly Stevens, Prof of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine at Imperial, i-sense Deputy Director and Flagship 4 (HIV and Ebola) lead.
“This will significantly reduce time to result, reducing potential onward transmission.”
Key partners and collaborators
Key academic partners include:
- University College London
- UCLH and the Advanced Pathogen Diagnostic Unit
- Imperial College London
- University of Leeds
- University of Surrey
With support from:
- Public Health England
- World Health Organization
- Royal College of General Practitioners Research Surveillance Centre
- Shattock Group, Imperial College London