CDC gives Northeastern U. $17.5 million to predict pandemics

Northeastern University has been selected for a leading role in a new national network formed to better forecast the spread of a future pandemic.

The university announced Tuesday the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded it $17.5 million over the next five years to develop a center focused on detecting and preparing for the next outbreak of infectious disease, especially in rural areas.

Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, is leading the project, called “EPISTORM: The Center for Advanced Epidemic Analytics and Predictive Modeling Technology.”

The money comes through the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, which was formed last year with the goal, Vespignani said, of creating “what would be a National Weather Service for epidemic threats.” NU is among 13 centers in the CDC’s new outbreak response network.

Vespignani will coordinate a consortium of 10 research institutions, health care systems, and private companies “that would provide innovation, tools, and technologies that can be used in this endeavor,” he said.

The center will devise algorithms that can draw on data from hospital admissions, waste water surveillance, social media, and other sources, as well as individuals’ travel patterns, to project where and how fast an infection is spreading.

NU researchers have been working on disease modeling for some time. They advised the White House on the expected effects of social distancing guidelines in the early days of the pandemic.

“Northeastern University is the perfect place for this (innovation) center because of Alex Vespignani and his expertise in pandemic tracking,” Jared Auclair, director of bioinnovation at NU, said in a statement.

“We are expected to basically design the most innovative ways we can be better prepared for epidemics and ongoing diseases,” said Mauricio Santillana, director of Northeastern’s Machine Intelligence Group for the betterment of Health and the Environment at the Network Science Institute.

Samuel Scarpino, director of artificial intelligence and life sciences, who also has a role in the project, said in a statement the innovation center will use methods from artificial intelligence and network science to integrate waste water and genomic and mobility data into forecasting models.

Although the CDC is planning a nationwide network, it provided no information about it on Tuesday. Boston University is also involved, according to the NU press release, but did not reply Tuesday to a request for more information.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security reported Tuesday that it has received a five-year, $23.5 million award to participate in the project. “This initiative is a crucial step in fortifying our nation’s defenses against future epidemics,” said Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who is co-leading the project there.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her @felicejfreyer.


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