Signaling the threat to public health posed by COVID-19, and following the first casualties recorded in the country, the Government has further stepped up measures designed to limit the spread of the virus by further restricting physical interaction.
Delaying and flattening the peak of COVID-19’s spread gives Kazakhstan’s health system a fighting chance to manage the oncoming wave of infection.
How Nazarbayev University is joining the fight against COVID-19?
Institutions around the globe are answering the call, drawing on faculty expertise, campus facilities, logistical assets, and campus leadership to provide just-in-time assistance in the battle against the pandemic. During this crisis, NU has initiated a number of initiatives to support the government’s efforts to slow down, track the spread of the virus. Its researchers are working on a number of valuable projects in the fight against COVID-19.
And here are some examples.
Stochastic epidemic simulator. NU’s Institute of Smart Systems and Artificial Intelligence (ISSAI) has developed a stochastic epidemic simulator that uses real data, ranging from population density to health care capacity for each region of the Republic of Kazakhstan to predict the dynamics of the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The spread of the disease between different geographic regions of Kazakhstan is modeled based on air, railway and highway connections between nodes. It can be used to visually show the current situation and to project the ongoing impact, which can be used to facilitate government decision-making and allocation of resources. In the future, this simulator can enable the modeling of disease suppression and mitigation measures, such as limiting travel and quarantining a region, on both localized and national basis, – says Dr. Atakan Varol, Director of the ISSAI.
In the simulator, Kazakhstan is represented as a graph of 17 connected nodes (14 oblasts and 3 cities of Republican significance) where each node runs a separate epidemiological model – showing the SEIR (Susceptible, Exposed, Infectious, and Recovered) individuals. It shows the spread of the disease based on various scenarios consisting of different parameters such as initial number of the exposed in a node, daily quarantine rate of the exposed, hospital capacity of a region, daily infected to severe infected transition rate, and more. The parameters can be adjusted for each region. Depending on the parameters, the simulator can generate results for different scenarios and the spread of the disease can be visualized on an interactive map.
The ISSAI provides a series of video tutorials on how the simulator can be used, adapted, and improved by others. The detailed information is available on the main webpage of the project (https://issai.nu.edu.kz/episim/).
Disease Tracking and Rapid Testing. NU medical and bio-medical scientists are providing research expertise, support and capacity building to optimize diagnostic tests for SARS-COV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) that could complement the current strategy already implemented by the Government.
Extensive analysis of the literature has already allowed the NU experts to develop different models of testing for the virus itself using standard molecular techniques but also the potential use of serological assays to reveal whether someone has been exposed to the coronavirus in the past, even if they do not currently have symptoms.
– Some of the tests will be further optimized and developed in our laboratories together with Artificial Intelligence solutions for the diagnosis and prediction of the COVID-19 disease progression. We are also very much interested in the current therapeutic clinical trials that are now available in many countries across the world in the different populations of individuals with COVID-19, including the SOLIDARITY trial recently launched by the World Health Organization. – said Professor Pignatelli, NU Vice-President for Medicine.
It is noteworthy that NU is ready and open to help in terms of scientific expertise and hospital facilities that might be involved in some experimental trials.
It is important to remember that before models and methods can be shared widely, all drugs and vaccines must be carefully tested in clinical trials which, of course, require a significant amount of time and effort being put towards with a lot of important research on other diseases being put on hold.
Surge Hospital. The University Medical Center (UMC) under Nazarbayev University is readying one of its hospitals, the Republican Diagnostic Center, to be able to receive COVID-19 patients or patients displaced from other hospitals, should the need arise. Should a situation arise where Nur-Sultan City’s health system is at risk of being overwhelmed, NU leadership will consider further support measures.,
Developing an App. NU has also applied digital technology to develop a new application (to be downloaded for free on mobile phones) to allow individuals to sign up and record any clinical symptoms which may be related to COVID-19 infection and other respiratory diseases. In addition, sections have been added related to physical isolation and mental health associated symptoms, which will be recorded anonymously and independently of diagnosis. The data acquired will support the users self-evaluation of symptoms and help healthcare professionals and scientists to better understand the evolution of COVID-19.
Volunteering. Meanwhile, two NU graduates, Aisulu Tustykbayeva and Aidana Amangeldiyeva, have launched a social project to help medical workers in the hospitals who are currently the frontline fighters against COVID-19 in Nur-Sultan. Together with the NU Alumni Association, acknowledging the hard work of the medical staff, these two brave ladies started raising funds and delivering free lunch boxes to the hospitals. Several city restaurants are supporting this important initiative by providing food. You are welcome to support the volunteers: Aisulu (+7 778 955 9993) and Aidana (+7 777 733 7333).
How is NU ensuring that COVID-19 does not infect its campus?
As the situation continues to change rapidly, Nazarbayev University’s (NU) top priority remains to keep COVID-19 away from its campus and ensure that NU does not turn into a source of infections. Naturally, the health, safety, and well-being of its community, on and off campus is, of paramount importance.
Early information gathering and preventive measures. Starting from mid-January, NU management initiated regular meetings to review the spread of the coronavirus globally and start a series of prevention measures. NU’s Health and Safety Department (HSD) was tasked with updating the NU community on COVID-19 news, government decisions, and precautionary measures recommended by WHO. NU installed hand sanitizers, issued health notifications and guidelines, and conducted professional disinfection of campus. All important and updated information is available at the University’s COVID-19 website. Additionally, NU top management has conducted a number of web-vcasts and Zoom-townhall meetings to update the NU community and provide everyone an opportunity to ask questions.
Work-from-home. Based on Government directives from March 30th, NU has mandated all faculty and staff members to work-from-home, providing remote access to office desktop computers and the electronic documentation system etc. Physical distancing (often referred to as social distancing) is a key measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19, together with frequent washing of hands with soap and water and avoiding touching one’s face.
Shift to online delivery of classes. Almost all NU students were able to leave campus before Nur-Sultan City started its lockdown on March 20th. Only a small number of students are authorized to stay in the campus dormitories. Starting April 6th, regular classes begin for all NU students in an online mode. The classes will be delivered using a range of university learning resources such as Moodle’s Big BlueButton; Discussion boards; Zoom; Qualtrics; Google Hangouts; Adobe Connect; Active Presenter; Audacity; narrated PowerPoints; online journals and e-books; resources in the Innovative Learning Hub; and textbooks. Online assessment tools are being developed, including open book exams, case studies, group based interviews, essays, video based assessments and research papers. NU will further enter into a partnership with Coursera to access its extensive library of online courses. In due course, NU will share its online experience with other universities in Kazakhstan. In parallel, NU’s Library has gone online in all its operations.
– All universities are facing similar challenges: shifting to online teaching and assessment; ensuring admission of high quality students, scheduling the end of spring semester followed by summer semester offerings, possible ripple effects to the new academic year, dispersion of students and faculty, need for enhanced student engagement and pastoral care, internship issues, and how to successfully destress campus life. However, importantly and very inspiring, universities have also showcased how they can contribute to national efforts to overcome COVID-19, through analysis, diagnostics, treatment, and technical innovation and service to society; in short, doing what universities do best: making concentrated brain power work, – said Mr. Shigeo Katsu, the NU President.
The mission goes on. In spite of complications due to the lockdown, NU continues to work hard to find effective solutions against the coronavirus. NU is planning for a number of contingency scenarios and taking decisive, informed action to limit the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring the continuity of its teaching and research mission.
Stay tuned for more updates coming on additional measures NU is taking.
Meanwhile, please stay safe and healthy!
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