As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, researchers at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute have won a new $10 million, five-year collaborative “Expeditions in Computing” grant from the National Science Foundation to use innovative technological and scientific advancements to plan for, and respond to, epidemics and pandemics, including outbreaks of deadly novel viruses and even the common flu, which sickens and kills millions of people each year.
As humans travel the globe and interact, the spread of infectious diseases is increasingly common and pandemics ever more likely. The new Expeditions grant will help teams of researchers at 14 U.S. institutions, working with renowned international partners, to revolutionize real-time epidemiology for controlling the outbreaks of disease.
The goal: find ways to stop or mitigate outbreaks before they spread across the globe.
“As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread worldwide, the urgency and importance of this work is indisputable,” said Madhav Marathe, the lead investigator for the project and director of a Biocomplexity Institute division that uses computer science to study complex networks, such as how vast ranges of human behaviors – travel, trade, urbanization – affect the spread of disease, and how contagions adapt to and proliferate in a rapidly changing world. “Through this Expeditions project, we will use the power of big data computing to address pandemics like COVID-19 or H1N1 in ways that that would not have been possible just 10 or 15 years ago.”
Marathe's team, which includes epidemiologists at UVA as well as such institutions as Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Virginia Tech and two national laboratories, is working with decision-makers at numerous local, regional, national and international public health agencies and universities to apply and deploy new technologies – many developed at the UVA Biocomplexity Institute – to predict and manage current and future epidemics.
This is possible, Marathe said, because of huge increases in the amounts and kinds of data available to researchers, the rapid speed at which it can be gathered and analyzed, and advances in computer science and data analytics.
The Biocomplexity Institute is actively working with scientists worldwide to support planning and response efforts by federal, local and international health authorities during the COVID-19 crisis. Institute researchers have long provided support to U.S. government officials during other major epidemics, including flu outbreaks, MERS, Ebola and Zika. The work blends techniques involving artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, network science and epidemic science.
“We see social, technological, economic, and presently, infectious diseases reshaping society on a global scale,” said Christopher Barrett, the executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute, a distinguished UVA professor in biocomplexity, and a professor of computer science. “The complex interactions of individuals and societies, combined with the intricacies of a multitude of contagions, can only be understood through the application of innovative computing that integrates artificial intelligence, machine learning and social science data and tools. This grant allows us to do that.”
The project is designed to improve epidemic planning and response by providing computational tools to epidemiologists worldwide; increasing surveillance of disease-spreading conditions; using weather and climate forecasting to likewise forecast epidemics; provide planning tools to policymakers to help in the allocation of resources such as vaccines and ventilators; and studying how social and political structures affect disease progression.
“Our goal is to move toward real-time epidemiology, which means that when we see the initial signs of the next outbreak, we can start deploying these efforts,” Marathe said. “This project will allow us to develop science-based decision-making tools that can change public health and make a difference in real time in the way we deal with emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re confident that our work can help transform the global response to pandemics and enable more lives to be saved. This on-the-ground impact is the best reward our fantastic team could receive from the work they are doing with amazing dedication every day.”
Computational advances that result from the project also could be applied to fields beyond epidemiology, including cybersecurity, ecology, economics and the social sciences.
The project includes an education and training component to develop multidisciplinary research groups worldwide and to train undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows in methods for mitigating disease outbreaks using methods developed through the Expeditions grant.
In addition to UVA, serving as the leader, the Expeditions grant includes teams at Arizona State University; the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy; Indiana University; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Princeton University; Stanford University; the State University of New York at Albany; the University of Maryland; Virginia Tech; and Yale University.