HERoS: How can we improve our response to health emergencies?

A European research consortium was set up to learn from the present COVID-19 pandemic and to provide decision-makers with the necessary information and tools to more efficiently and effectively respond to future disease outbreaks.

Finding new approaches for handling pandemics requires joint efforts of all involved medical professions. Foto: Staff Sgt. Michael Zimmermann / Wikimedia Commons / PD

(ESMH / Rosa Garcia-Verdugo / scientific support Gyöngyi Kovacs and Ira Haavisto) – The European research consotrium has not only investigated the evolution of the current pandemic, but it has produced concrete results. Some outcomes of this collaboration include a tool to optimise cross-border intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy in hospitals and a fact-checking observatory to combat misinformation.

For more than a year now, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a constant presence in our lives. Authorities and first responders, such as frontline healthcare workers, have faced numerous challenges related to not only the disease itself, but also indirect effects such as misinformation and the malfunctioning of medical supply chains.

While traditional disease outbreak models focus largely on infection rates, the “Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems (HERoS) project”, funded by the EU under Horizon 2020, aims to integrate human behaviour and structural data in realistic models, which will help coordinate responses to future worldwide health threats.

Gyöngyi Kovacs, Erkko Professor in Humanitarian Logistics – the first Professor in the subject worldwide – at the Hanken School of Economics (Helsinki, Finland) and project coordinator of HERoS: “HERoS kicked off around April 2020, just a few weeks after the first wave of the pandemic hit Europe. We developed the concept based on information reaching Europe from Wuhan and on data from previous pandemics like the Ebola crisis and the Zika virus. Sadly, many of the problems we had anticipated on the basis of pre-existing information became true later on. That being said, it was really hard to predict the extent of the pandemic in the beginning.”

The question is – how can we, as a society, best respond to this health crisis? According to the project experts, an effective emergency response can only be implemented when you successfully combine a number of factors: governance, behaviour and supply chain management.

For instance, the project investigated what characteristics of European countries and health care systems – if any – had an impact on COVID-19-related mortality. This led to somewhat unexpected results.

Ira Haavisto, Senior Research Manager at the Nordic Healthcare Group Finland, responsible for the public healthcare system analysis work package of the HERoS project: “Through regression analysis of country features and healthcare system factors, we found that none of those features directly correlate to COVID-19-related mortality. This is probably because European health systems are quite homogeneous, and the quality of care is generally good. However, the results might have been different if we had included data from countries outside of Europe.”

A tool to visualise ICU capacity – HERoS also addressed the issue of ICU capacity. An analysis of health system requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic identified ICU capacity as a bottleneck. HERoS therefore developed a visualisation tool to show ICU occupancy rates in Europe from spring to autumn 2020. This tool reflects the difference between the potential additional COVID-19-related ICU demand and ICU availability at European level. At the same time, it shows the potential for cross-border collaboration to expand ICU capacity and accelerate responses.

A fact-checking observatory to combat misinformation – The researchers at HERoS decided to look into an often unexplored factor affecting epidemiology – human behaviour. The project not only focused on understanding behavioural patterns that influence infection spread, but also on how misinformation influences our behaviour, thereby impacting disease outcomes, infection spread and vaccination.

To increase public awareness of these issues and inform the media, HERoS developed a fact-checking observatory.

Gyöngyi Kovacs: “We put the initial focus of the project on understanding the misinformation process itself: who initiates it, who spreads it, and how fact-checking affects these patterns. These are all relevant questions, because if misinformation is spread by decision-makers, it can lead to catastrophic consequences. Also, it is important to understand the misinformation patterns that are specific to this virus so that we can then observe any geographical or cultural differences.”

However, according to Kovacs, verifying information would not suffice to counteract the effects of misinformation – we would also need to find the appropriate channels to reach all stakeholders involved. This remains a challenge.

The HERoS experts also focused on understanding human behaviour. They analysed data from public sources to study how cultural and societal factors influence infection transmission, and how movement restriction policies affect the spread of the virus.

These are just a couple of examples of the deliverables of the HERoS project since it was set up at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This project might hold the key to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the response to current and future disease outbreaks by providing decision-makers with the necessary information and tools.

You’ll find the first publication of this article on the platform of the European Science Media Hub, including links to full interviews with Gyöngyi Kovacs and Ira HaavistoIra Haavisto.

To learn more about the European Science Media Hub – click HERE!

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