Northeastern University has been selected to play a leading role in a new national network formed to better predict the spread of a future pandemic.
The university announced Tuesday that the U.S. 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 infectious disease outbreak , especially in rural areas.
Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, is leading the project titled “EPISTORM: The Center for Advanced Epidemic Analytics and Predictive Modeling Technology.”
The money comes from the CDC’s Center for Epidemic Forecasting and Analysis, which was created last year with the goal, Vespignani said, of creating “what would be a national weather service for epidemic threats.” NU is one of 13 centers in the CDC’s new Outbreak Response Network. Boston University is a contractor working with NU.
Vespignani will coordinate a consortium of 10 research institutes, health care systems and private companies “that will provide innovations, tools and technologies that can be used in this endeavor,” he said.
The center will design algorithms that can draw on data from hospital admissions, wastewater monitoring, social media and other sources, as well as individuals’ travel patterns, to project where and how quickly an infection spreads.
NU researchers have been working on disease modeling for some time. They advised the White House on the expected effects of social distancing guidelines early in the pandemic.
“Northeastern University is the ideal location for this (innovation) center thanks to Alex Vespignani and his expertise in tracking pandemics,” Jared Auclair, director of bioinnovation at NU, said in a statement.
“We are expected to design the most innovative ways to be better prepared for current epidemics and diseases,” said Mauricio Santillana, director of Northeastern’s Machine Intelligence Group for Health and Environmental Improvement at the Network Science Institute .
Samuel Scarpino, director of artificial intelligence and life sciences, who also plays a role in the project, said in a statement that the innovation center will use artificial intelligence and network science methods to integrate wastewater and genomic and mobility data in forecast models.
Although the CDC is considering a national network, it provided no information on that Tuesday.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security announced Tuesday that it had received a $23.5 million grant over five years to participate in the project. “This initiative is a critical step in strengthening our nation’s defenses against future outbreaks,” said Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who co-leads the project there.