Our group, the UP OCTA-Research Team, is composed of academics — and we are at war. To help in the fight against COVID-19, we are pooling together our specializations to come up with projections that track the rate of infections in the country, in order to give our decision-makers deeper insight into what can be done, and at same time, let the public know if we are indeed flattening the curve.
My colleagues and I are more used to the classroom setting and with the closure of schools, we found ourselves with nothing to do (some of them were just watching K-dramas). That is until my childhood friend, Dr. Guido David of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute of Math, and I, an assistant professor at the UP Department of Political Science, decided to do research that nobody else was doing. We started to monitor the pandemic using a methodology to do models and projections.
We call ourselves OCTA, to differentiate ourselves from the other UP groups. It was fitting because we started with eight people, and we were supported by a company that is called Octa. Eventually, we were joined by more members — faculty and alumni from UP, and even a team from UST that heard about our work and said that they were doing modelling of their own — so why not work together?
Guido and I are the principal writers and we have my friends from the Department of Science, Technology and Society helping out.
On the team are OCTA research associate Ma. Patricia Agbulos; Erwin Alampay, who is a professor at the National College of Public Administrations and Governance; Dr. Rodrigo Angelo Ong, a professorial lecturer at the Science Society Program of the UP College of Science; Dr. Michael Tee, chair of the Philippine One Health University Network; Elmer Soriano, a community expert out in the field; and Benjamin Vallejo Jr., a professor of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology and the Science Society Program. Sharing their knowledge in public policy are UP alumnus and former faculty Emmanuel Lallana of Ideacorp and Eero Rosini Brillantes, the CEO of Blueprint Campaign Consultancy.
From UST are Rev. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a visiting professor from the Department of Biology of Providence College in the US, and Bernhard Egwolf, an associate professor from the Department of Mathematics and Physics and Research Fellow, Research Center for Natural and Applied Sciences.
We all recognize that we are not experts in this battlefield, for we are not epidemiologists. What we want to achieve is to contribute to the understanding of the pandemic. There are many other groups in UP doing much bigger research work on vaccines, health protocols and treatment, and advanced work in economics. In the great scheme of things, what we are doing is a very small aspect, which is to systematize the data, but we decided to do it every week for 12 straight weeks, born of passion for the country as our way to contribute to the “war effort” using our core competency.
“ If the scale goes at over one, it’s bad; if it goes over two, it is already catastrophic. With that scenario, one person can get infected on a Monday and can technically infect the whole barangay by the seventh day. ”
To put it simply, what we do is to collect existing data and use what is known as the R naught model — which is also employed by institutions abroad like the CDC, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Washington — to measure the speed of the virus’ spread or rate of transmission.
We average the number of cases that are derived from one infected person. COVID-19 is a virus that can infect at least three people and every person infected has the potential to infect another set of three people. That’s the virus working at regular speed. The R naught model looks at a seven-day average and the speed of transmission.
If the scale goes at over one, it’s bad; if it goes over two, it is already catastrophic. With that scenario, one person can get infected on a Monday and can technically infect the whole barangay by the seventh day. That is the exponential growth and we are trying to prevent the virus from spreading at that speed.
One of our challenges is the dearth of systematized data. Whatever data we have, we have to clean it up. The labs are overwhelmed and there are many uncategorized cases and those with incomplete information that are useless for our models which we make not only for the national level but even for a more granular level for the LGUs.
“ We were attacked by trolls on our e-mails and on social media and the sad part is that they are not attacking just us and our credibility but also science. ”
This has been the weakest link as far as the overall pandemic management is concerned. You need data to see if your strategies are working and the largest hurdles we had to handle was that we did not even have good data before the pandemic, to begin with.
The second challenge is our polarized society. We were attacked by trolls on our e-mails and on social media and the sad part is that they are not attacking just us and our credibility but also science.
More than anything today, we need to embrace science and separate fact from opinion. We were attacked for not being so-called experts (which we never claimed to be, as again, we are not epidemiologists), and for catastrophizing when our goal was to inform people.
We were attacked for not being so-called experts (which we never claimed to be, as again, we are not epidemiologists), and for catastrophizing when our goal was to inform people.
“ More than anything today, we need to embrace science and separate fact from opinion. ”
We believe that with information, people are enlightened, enabled, and empowered so they can make better sense of what is happening around them.
Our current projection is 85,000 cases with 2,000 deaths total by the end of July. We never claimed to be experts on COVID, but we do stand by our data. The only reason we were thrust into the limelight is that our projections turned out to be correct for 12 out of 12 and it is not something to be proud of. We hope that this time, we will fail.
What we are looking for is a timely and accurate response. We in Metro Manila need to take this surge seriously just as we did in Cebu. We owe it to our frontliners who are overworked and underpaid. We hope that the government and the public will use our information as a way to enlighten them about where we are in the pandemic and implement the appropriate response.
Images courtesy of the UP-OCTA Research team
Edited by Tanya T. Lara