The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is giving Northeastern University $17.5 million over the next five years to head an innovation center designed to help detect and prepare the United States for the next outbreak of infectious disease, especially in rural areas.
Called “EPISTORM: The Center for Advanced Epidemic Analytics and Predictive Modeling Technology,” it will be headed by Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor.
With COVID-19, “everybody was caught off guard,” Vespignani says. “We don’t want to be in a situation like that in the future.”
“We want to be in a place where there is a National Weather Service for epidemics and epidemic threats,” he says.
CDC funds will help Northeastern coordinate the work of consortium members across the country to work out systems to prepare local communities and hospitals in their geographic region — rural areas will be a top priority — for outbreaks.
Seasonal flu and RSV outbreaks already push community hospitals to the brink, Vespignani says.
“If we can tell them even one or two weeks in advance that the numbers will go up, that they have to make room for two or three more emergency or ICU beds, that could make a difference.”
Northeastern’s EPISTORM center will lead a consortium of 10 research institutions, healthcare systems and private companies that will use tools including wastewater surveillance, AI and machine learning and other predictive analytics to help the U.S. make more informed decisions during future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
“It will be the place where there will be monitoring, forecasting and scenario analysis for the country about all possible threats,” including known diseases such as Ebola and Zika as well as novel infections, Vespignani says.
“To be an actor in this national endeavor is something that galvanizes all of us,” Vespignani says. “We are creating a system for the future. It has never happened for infectious disease. It is not happening at this level elsewhere in the world.”
Northeastern is one of five national innovation centers established by the CDC as part of a new outbreak response network being funded through the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. The network consists of a total of 13 centers, including the five focusing on innovation.
“Each of the grantees will help us move the nation forward in our efforts to better prepare and respond to infectious disease outbreaks that threaten our families and our communities,” says Dylan George, director of the CDC Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics.
George says the CDC is committed to working alongside its partners to use data and advanced analytics to support decision-makers at every level of government.
“The CDC realizes that to build this large infrastructure, they also need to develop innovation. And innovation is done by people in institutions at the forefront of the research field,” Vespignani says.
“The forecasting should be actionable,” he says, comparing the system to the way the National Weather Service has forecasts for the whole country as well as much smaller geographic regions.
“We are not doctors. We are not nurses. We are playing the intelligence (role),” he says. “We are gathering data to provide situational awareness to responders in the field.”
In addition to Northeastern, the consortium’s academic members include Boston University, Indiana University, the University of Florida and the University of California at San Diego.
Other members are the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, MaineHealth, Northern Light Health and Concentric Ginkgo Bioworks.
The center activities also are being supported by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, Vespignani says.
“Northeastern University is the perfect place for this (innovation) center because of Alex Vespignani and his expertise in pandemic tracking,” says Jared Auclair, one of EPISTORM’s principal investigators and director of Bioinnovation at Northeastern.
Vespignani’s team was one of several groups to advise the White House on COVID-19 policies, using network science to predict such things as how human social interaction and the availability of medical resources factor into disease models of the spread of the coronavirus.
“We are expected to basically design the most innovative ways we can be better prepared for epidemics and ongoing diseases,” says Mauricio Santillana, another principal investigator and director of Northeastern’s Machine Intelligence Group for the betterment of Health and the Environment at the Network Science Institute.
“Our role is to contain pathogens,” Santillana says.
Also taking leading roles at EPISTORM are David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences; Samuel Scarpino, director of AI and life sciences; and Matteo Chinazzi, research associate professor at Northeastern’s campus in Portland, Maine.
Scarpino says the innovation center will use methods from artificial intelligence and network science “to integrate wastewater, pathogen genomic, and high-resolution mobility data into operationally relevant forecasting models.”
“Using cutting-edge science to solve the world’s most challenging problems is core to our DNA at Northeastern University,” he says.
Responders in the field will also include non-medical government authorities and operators of transportation systems who will be given information about whether a flight route should remain open or closed in response to a disease outbreak, for instance.
It’s important to establish channels of communication with agencies from the CDC down to local health departments and to keep those channels open, Vespignani says.
“We don’t want to be like the past pandemic, when we were inventing the wheel during the crisis. During an emergency, everything should already be in place,” Vespignani says. “Unfortunately, viruses and pathogens will always be a step ahead of us. There is no way we will always be able to prevent them from emerging.”
But he says with the new predictive models and analytics, “in many cases we will be able to contain and mitigate the outbreak at the source. And if not, we will be able to provide better plans for the management of diseases.”