In a significant move, the CDC (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will be funding Northeastern University with a sum of $17.5 million in the next five years to head an innovation center launched with the aim of helping the United States diagnose and brace up for the next outbreak of infectious diseases, mainly in rural areas.
Named “EPISTORM: The Center for Advanced Epidemic Analytics and Predictive Modeling Technology,” the center will be helmed by Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor.
Northeastern is one of the five national innovation centers set up by the CDC in connection with the new outbreak response network being bankrolled through the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics.
According to Vespignani, everyone was caught off guard during the outbreak of COVID-19 and they don’t want to be in a predicament similar to that in the future. He went on to say that they want to have a system similar to the National Weather Service for epidemics and epidemic threats in place.
EPISTORM center will be heading a consortium of 10 research institutions, healthcare systems, and private companies that make use of tools such as wastewater surveillance, AI machine learning, and other predictive analytics to help the United States make more informed decisions during times of pandemic outbreaks in the future.
With the infusion of funds by the CDC, Northeastern will now be able to coordinate the activities of consortium members across the country to develop systems to prepare local communities and hospitals in their geographic region during the outbreaks of infectious diseases. It is to be noted that the top priority will be given to rural areas.
Vespignani also said that during the outbreaks of seasonal flu and RSV, community hospitals are stretched nowadays. According to him, it would be great if the new center could inform them one or two weeks in advance that there will be a surge in numbers so that the hospital authorities could make the necessary arrangements for additional emergency or ICU beds. Vespignani went on to say that the center will serve as the place for monitoring, forecasting, and scenario analysis for the United States regarding all possible threats ranging from Ebola, Zika, and new infections.
While speaking at the occasion, Vespignani said that the forecasting should be actionable. He added they they are neither doctors nor nurses, but play the intelligence role. He added that they are collecting data to provide situational awareness to responders in the field. Apart from Northeastern, the other members in the consortium include Boston University, the University of Florida, Indiana University, and the University of California at San Diego.
While commenting on the development, Jared Auclair, a principal investigator at EPISTORM and director of Bioinnovation at Northeastern said that Northeastern University is the ideal location for the center taking into consideration Alex Vespignani and his expertise in tracking pandemics. It is to be noted that Vespignani’s team, among many other groups, were involved in advising the White House on COVID-19 policies.
Apart from Vespignani, the other key persons at EPISTORM include David Lazer, University distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences; Matteo Chinazzi, research associate professor at Northeastern’s campus in Portland, Maine and Samuel Scarpino, director of AI and life sciences.
According to Scarpino, EPISTORM will make use of methods in artificial intelligence and network science to integrate wastewater, pathogen genomic, and high-resolution mobility data into operationally relevant forecasting models. He also stated that the main focus at Northeastern University is to use state-of-the-art science to provide solutions for the world’s most pressing problems.
To add on, responders in the field will also comprise non-medical government authorities and operators of transportation systems. In scenarios such as a disease outbreak, these parties will be provided information about whether a flight route should remain open or closed.
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