May 20, 2021

Peak Scholar helps chart route out of COVID-19

Rahul Arora is an entrepreneurial thinker whose innovation shows the infections that lie beneath the surface of recorded COVID cases
Rahul Arora
Rahul Arora.

There’s always a moment — a lightbulb or, sometimes, a slow train of an idea that finally comes fully into view. For Rahul Arora — Peak Scholar and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Community Health Sciences and the Centre for Health Informatics in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) — that moment came when he was asked by Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force to help “keep an eye” on global immunity data.

“Of course I said, ‘Yes’ but,” says Arora, “we thought to ourselves, ‘Well, how are we going to manage that?’”

Enter the SeroTracker, an innovation that Arora developed, along with Tingting Yan, BHSc’19, as a way to contribute meaningfully to the pandemic response. Last April, the former classmates quickly organized epidemiologists and engineers in their networks, many of whom were UCalgary alumni, to build an online tool that could help with Canada’s Covid-19 strategy.

Arora, BHSc’19 (Honours), was the ninth student from CSM to receive a Rhodes Scholarship, and the first from the Bachelor of Health Sciences program. In the fall of 2019, he started a PhD at Oxford in health data science. His dissertation focuses on the question: How can we analyze data from antibody-testing studies to understand how many people have been infected and chart a course toward herd immunity?

It’s an extraordinarily complex question that Arora has a knack for explaining with clarity and relevance.

Serosurveys are research studies that test people for antibodies, checking how many people in a population have been infected or vaccinated for a disease. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers were doing these studies, but nobody was putting this data together in one place. Enter SeroTracker — a database which puts together findings from thousands of these serosurveys. 

“We’re trying to chart our path towards herd immunity and out of this pandemic,” says Arora. “By putting together data from serosurveys, we can build an up-to-date, comprehensive picture of what the state of infection and immunity look like worldwide.”

SeroTracker screenshot

The typical way to bring together findings from a lot of studies would be to do a systematic literature review. Such studies, however, can take years to complete and publish, and are thus challenging to adapt to the swiftly moving pandemic context. In contrast, SeroTracker maintains the rigour of this approach, but allows people to access data as it becomes available and build on it for their own work.

What’s novel about the SeroTracker is the fashion in which Arora and his team have stitched together this systematic approach to data-gathering with modern dashboards and data pipelines, creating a data platform that is always up to date.

“We search medical databases, but also scour the web for government reports and news articles, and add new knowledge on a weekly basis,” says Arora. “We make this information available right away on our dashboard so that researchers, public health officials, and institutes like the World Health Organization can better inform their research and decision-making.”

Last month, Arora — who is currently in Calgary and will return to Oxford in the fall — was selected as one of 10 UCalgary Peak Scholars in COVID-19 Innovation Excellence. “Rahul has brought together an incredible team of students from all over the globe to create SeroTracker,” says Dr. Tyler Williamson, PhD, an associate professor of biostatistics in the Department of Community Health Sciences who has been working closely with Arora.

Under Rahul’s leadership this amazing team has created the world’s best source of sero-surveillance data for COVID-19.

The SeroTracker information, says Williamson, has been used by the Canadian Immunity Task Force, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation and many other organizations. “Rahul is already establishing an international reputation of excellence as a scientist and he hasn’t even finished his doctoral training!”

Since 2014 the Peak Scholars program has celebrated the accomplishments of over 200 scholars at the University of Calgary. These are scholars whose academic work in knowledge engagement, entrepreneurship, tech transfer, innovation or collaborative research has resulted in a positive social or economic impact in our communities. Learn more

Canadian Innovation Week at UCalgary  
As part of UCalgary’s partnership with the Rideau Hall Foundation, we are celebrating Canadian Innovation Week. Join UCalgary experts and researchers May 17-21 for a week of conversation, inspiration and ideas. Learn more.


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