New Brunswick

UNB mathematics professor uses his expertise to track COVID-19

A UNB mathematics professor is working to help predict how and when COVID-19 will strike, and who is most at risk. James Watmough is part of the Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force.

Prof. James Watmough is part of Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force

James Watmough, a University of New Brunswick mathematics professor, is a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force. It is working to track where the virus will strike and who will be affected. (unb.ca)

A University of New Brunswick mathematics professor is part of an international team of experts trying to figure out how and when COVID-19 will strike, and who's at risk.

James Watmough is a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force, which is working to develop mathematical technologies to help in the fight against the coronavirus.

He said modelling is being used to come up with predictions of how the virus will spread.

"If you're infected today we know there's a two week period where you're going to develop the infection and start ... potentially infecting other people," Watmough said.

"So, how many people can you potentially infect over that two weeks or three weeks, and so those two things together kind of give you a rough idea of how fast and how far the disease will spread."

The task force, Watmough explained, is taking into account things such as how COVID-19 symptoms vary from person to person and how infection rates vary from place to place.

The Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force is working to assess the transmission risk and project outbreak trajectories of the virus. (NIAID-RML/The Associated Press/The Canadian Press)

There are a lot of unknowns right now because some people may have been infected but don't know it, and testing criteria vary from place to place.

Watmough said details such as the age of the person and underlying health conditions are also important to factor into any modelling.

He hopes the task force will be able to come up with numbers that can help health-care professionals plan for what's coming and determine the earliest dates a state of emergency might be able to be lifted.

"What can we do to make sure that we can lift all these restrictions and get back to normal without risking [or] over burdening the healthcare system?" he said.

As a mathematician, Watmough is thinking about the people behind the numbers he works with every day, and what the models really mean.

"A two per cent mortality that you hear floating around doesn't seem that high but when you start thinking about how many people you know, and compounding that all together it does get rather scary," he said.

Sanjeev Seahra, professor and chair of UNB's department of mathematics and statistics, left, is on the Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force, along with Watmough, right. (unb.ca)

The job of the task force is to assess the transmission risk and project outbreak trajectories of COVID-19.

And there is still a lot of work to do.

"You look at these numbers and the real question is, 'When is it going to slow down and turn around?' And there are a lot of interesting factors that play into that."

Sanjeev Seahra, professor and chair of UNB's department of mathematics and statistics, is also part of the Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force.

The research is being funded by a number of groups, including the Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

About the Author

Kate Letterick is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick.

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