Faculty across five BU research centers will work together to prevent future pandemics

A multidisciplinary team of researchers were awarded funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop models that predict disease emergence and spread, and to devise pandemic mitigation strategies.

By Gina Mantica

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at Boston University will work towards predicting and preventing future pandemics as part of a new $1 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Faculty members from the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, the Center for Information & Systems Engineering (CISE), the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research (CEID), the Bioengineering Technology & Entrepreneurship Center (BTEC), and the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) will work with researchers from EcoHealth Alliance to develop a set of models that can predict disease emergence and spread, and to devise effective pandemic mitigation strategies.

Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, BME, SE)

“We have all seen what a global pandemic can cause and have realized that effective responses must be multifaceted,” says Distinguished Professor of Engineering Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, BME, SE), who is director of the Hariri Institute and a principal investigator (PI) of the project. “This grant is an opportunity to bring together our amazingly interdisciplinary team and have them work on one of the most consequential topics of our time: how to prevent another pandemic.” Other PIs include Professor of the Practice Diane Joseph-McCarthy (BME), Eric Kolaczyk, Nahid Bhadelia (CEID, NEIDL), and Jonathan Epstein (EcoHealth Alliance).

Joseph McCarthy Diane

The team will focus its efforts on determining when a disease transitions from an epidemic, manifested by an unexplained increase in disease locally, to a pandemic, or exponential increase in disease on a global scale.  Viruses far outnumber humans, so determining all the pathogens that might pose a threat prior to their emergence would be difficult and costly, says Joseph-McCarthy, who is executive director of BTEC. “The window between emergence and pandemic affords researchers and medical professionals the best opportunity to focus efforts on the highest impact activities.”

Researchers will identify location hot spots for pathogen emergence across the globe and determine which mutagenic viruses are more likely to cause an outbreak in these areas. Then using data from COVID-19, H1N1 flu, and Ebola Virus Disease, the team will develop a set of models that characterize a pathogen to determine its spread, detect disease anomalies in healthcare settings to understand patient outcomes, and determine therapeutics, vaccines, or policies to mitigate the impacts of the disease.

The long-term repercussions of a pandemic warrant a collaborative and interdisciplinary response to disease outbreaks. Researchers on the project will bring expertise in epidemiology, ecology, biology, virology, engineering, statistics, artificial intelligence, media science, behavioral science, and more. “This project brings together a world-class transdisciplinary team of scientists to address the challenge of predicting where outbreaks may occur, detecting them faster when they do, and developing interventions that directly address the things that can prevent local outbreaks from becoming global pandemics: human behavior, policies, and effective communication,” says Epstein, who is vice president for science and outreach at EcoHealth Alliance.

The researchers plan to focus their efforts towards developing algorithms that are less biased and more equitable than existing tools for predicting the spread of disease. “Infectious diseases do not respect political boundaries and rapidly can become global problems,” says Laura White, a core faculty member at CEID, professor of biostatistics, and member of the research team on the grant, “I hope that this project helps create more infrastructure for public health in lower resource settings.”

Image by Brian McGowan