COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group: 100 Bulletins

graffiti of face mask and words 'covid-19'

Matthew Edwards, Stuart McDonald and Nicola Oliver of the COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group look back over their 100 bulletins and how actuaries have come together to help tackle the pandemic.

The number 100 has felt ominous recently, with 100 million cases reported worldwide, and 100 thousand COVID-19 deaths in the UK. For the COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group, those figures explain why we now find ourselves publishing our 100th bulletin – there has been an often changing, but ever increasing, range of issues over the pandemic where we have worked hard to provide what insights we can.

The group came together in early March 2020, just as Europe started its collective lockdown. Since then, we have been publishing short bulletins (via our website, LinkedIn, Twitter, the IFoA website and recently Facebook) to share insights on a range of topics.

In keeping with our name – the ‘R’ is for Response, not Research – we have tried to bring things out quickly as issues arose. So our earliest bulletins covered the earliest topics, from the Imperial College model and pandemic modelling in general to the infection fatality rate and the problems in estimating that.

As more data emerged, we were able to bring actuarial insights to bear and challenge some early fallacies. For instance, given the advanced age of most COVID-19 victims, conditions such as high blood pressure that are highly correlated with age were being seen as risk factors in their own right. As multifactor analyses of COVID-19 mortality emerged, we clarified the underlying dynamics involved.

There was a similar problem with the public misunderstanding the surprisingly high (pre-COVID) life expectancy of typical old, obese male COVID-19 victims. Our work on that, with input from our members’ own mortality and underwriting models enhanced by insights from reports being issue by the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre (‘ICNARC’), ended up as an article in the mainstream media and led to an appearance in the Wall Street Journal.

The issues soon moved on: in the summer, we worked on the issue of seasonality, and how that affected the spread and lethality of the virus. Shortly afterwards came emerging news of ‘Long COVID’ – many survivors reported continuing debilitating symptoms long after they had emerged from hospital. So bad news from survivors, although we also worked on the ‘good news’ angle that COVID-19 mortality in hospitals was materially down from the early months.

Over the autumn, we worked on understanding R better, and our use of actuarial “incurred but not reported” methods meant that we were the first group to pick up the emergence of increasing deaths as the second wave began in the UK. Our work on this went hand-in-hand with the ‘false positives’ problem, and we tried to dispel exaggerated ‘fake news’ of the influence of false positives.

As our readership grew, we also engaged more with the media, with several appearances on the BBC’s insightful programme ‘More or Less’. Around this time we worked on bulletins exploring the progress with vaccine development, the prospects for harmful mutations of the virus, and important but less urgent topics such as the harms of social isolation as a policy response.

Most recently we have worked on the vaccination programme. Our bulletin on the mortality reductions expected from vaccinating the various priority groups has been widely quoted, most recently in the Financial Times, and even before that our headline figures were being used in some of the Government press briefings.

In this short blog, we cannot do justice to all of the bulletins we have written, but we hope the above gives some flavour of what we have been doing.

Last but most definitely not least, we should point to the group’s success as a great example of teamwork and diversity. The group comprises a range of actuaries and non-actuaries, bringing in medical skills and epidemiological knowledge as well as core actuarial expertise around mortality modelling. We have also been fortunate that many outside our group have offered bulletins, with former IFoA President Chris Daykin having been the most generous with three bulletins to his name.

Our 100th bulletin is available here and provides (we hope) an interesting summary of our work since our inception in early March 2020. We have come a long way, and the number 100 provides another type of hope: worldwide COVID-19 vaccines administered are just breaking through 100 million –an incredible human achievement.