NSF Awards Biocomplexity Institute $10 Million Collaborative Grant for Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology Project

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March 24, 2020

The threat and impact of infectious diseases has shaped society and continues to present a global threat. The rapid growth in human population and its ability to adapt to a variety of environmental conditions has enabled unprecedented levels of interaction between humans and other species. This, along with the continued impact of globalization, international travel and trade, anti-microbial resistance, urbanization, climate change, and other ecological pressures have increased the risk of global pandemics. As the COVID-19 global health crisis continues to unfurl worldwide, the questions around global pandemics are no longer “if” they will occur, but how frequent, widespread, and severe those that come next will become.

Rivaling infectious disease in its progression are the technological and scientific advancements to plan for and respond to such epidemics – several advances originating right here at the University of Virginia. The UVA Biocomplexity Institute was recently awarded a five-year $10 million collaborative grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead more than 40 researchers from 14 U.S. institutions and more than 20 internationally renowned partners in a massive project titled, “Expeditions in Computing: Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology,” to revolutionize real-time epidemiology. The grant funding spans from April 2020 through April 2025.

“For over 10 years, the Expeditions in Computing program has harnessed the vast amount of creativity in the computer science research community to expand the horizons of our field and enhance our Nation’s economy,” said Margaret Martonosi, NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “The projects being awarded this year will undoubtedly do the same for decades to come, pushing the boundaries on challenging research problems with the potential to yield tremendous benefits to our economy and society.”

“We see social, technological, economic, and presently, infectious disease contagions reshaping society on a global scale,” said Christopher L. Barrett, Executive Director and Distinguished Professor in Biocomplexity for the Institute and Expeditions team contributor. “These contagions are the by-products of humanity’s spectacular success as a species. The various cases of contagion are different in almost every observable way in the world; however, they share deep underlying forms and produce similar needs for social institutions such as governments, markets, and voter citizens to comprehend them and participate in their mitigation and solution. It is extremely important that elite scientific research programs such as Expeditions, bringing together such talent as we see in this team and problems such as we see in this project, are set in the direction of understanding and solving the myriad problems that constitute these powerful phenomena, and infectious disease computational epidemiology is a critical and central component.”

Through the project, researchers will develop and apply novel computational theories of spreading and control processes to dynamic multi-scale, multi-layer (MSML) networks, integrating artificial intelligence, machine learning, and social science data and tools. New techniques resulting from this research will enable the team to develop and apply large-scale computer simulations of epidemics and social interactions over MSML networks – controlled experiments that are otherwise impossible to carry out for ethical or practical reasons. These simulations, in turn, will provide fundamentally new insights into how to control epidemics.

“Through the Expeditions project, we will use computing to address pandemics like COVID-19 or H1N1, in ways that would not have been possible just 10 or 15 years ago,” said Madhav Marathe, director of the Biocomplexity Institute’s Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing division (NSSAC) and Expeditions project principal investigator. “In that time, we have seen a huge increase in the kind of data available to us, the speed at which we can access data, major advancements in the power of computing and in mathematical theory – all of which can now be applied to this kind of problem.”

“As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread worldwide, the urgency and importance of this work is indisputable. We will work closely with numerous local, regional, national, and international public health agencies and universities to apply and deploy the resulting technologies for real-world epidemics that are likely to occur during the course of the project,” he said.  

In addition to providing decision-makers with new capabilities for science-based epidemic planning and response, the Expeditions project will facilitate collaboration and coordination among agencies and governments worldwide, and ultimately, transform our global ability to respond to infectious diseases. The computational advances can also be applied to other fields beyond epidemiology including cybersecurity, ecology, economics, and social sciences.

The Institute has long been interested in integrating advanced computing methods with epidemiology. The Expeditions project focuses on the computing and mathematical conditions that can help epidemiologists as its primary mission. 

“Mitigation of infectious diseases is a complex systems problem,” said Anil Vullikanti, professor in the Institute’s NSSAC division and Expeditions project principal investigator. “Theoretical frameworks, engineering techniques, and tools for modeling individual components and their interactions – grounded in empirical data – are needed to accurately engage the complex and changing nature of these systems. The Expeditions project consists of three broad research themes: computational foundations, pervasive scalable technologies, and cyber environments, and applications to epidemic science. We believe advances in all these aspects are needed to respond to future pandemics.”

How will those methods transform epidemiology from how it exists today? The Expeditions project will enable improved epidemic planning and response through:

  • Access – Expeditions researchers will develop of a number of computational tools so epidemiologists anywhere in the world can access them for pandemic control efforts.
  • Surveillance – The project will establish partnerships for better data collection on the ground, enabling integration of data ranging from symptom surveillance and genomic data to weather, social media, and mobility and fitness tracking.  
  • Forecasting – Partnerships with organizations like Accuweather will enable epidemiologists to use weather and climate conditions to more accurately forecast the progression of epidemics.  
  • Resource Allocation – The Expeditions team will develop tools to help policy makers plan and properly distribute financial resources and mitigation supplies such as ventilators and vaccines.
  • Social-Political Epidemiology – The project will study how social and political structures impact complex disease progression and how epidemics spread across various networks.

“Our goal is to move toward real-time epidemiology, which means that when we see the initial signs of the next outbreak, we can start deploying these efforts,” Marathe said. “In the past, we’ve worked closely with officials and policy makers at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and DoD (U.S. Department of Defense) who are responsible for policies and on-the-ground response. With these partnerships in place, the Expeditions project will allow us to develop science-based decision-making tools that can change public health and make a difference in real-time in the way we deal with emergencies.” 

The Expeditions team will utilize a wide variety of data in its work while taking into account emerging concerns around: preserving privacy of individuals and vulnerable groups, ensuring fairness of the process across populations, and enabling model predictions to be interpreted and explained. Further, the Expeditions project includes a critical education and training component to create a multidisciplinary cadre of people worldwide who will continue this effort to benefit public health well into the future. Student training programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels will be established, and the team will work with its partners in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America to help develop multidisciplinary scientists focused on all facets of pandemic outbreak and response.

Led by Marathe and Vullikanti, the Expeditions team from the Biocomplexity Institute includes Barrett, Stephen Eubank, Bryan Lewis, S.S. Ravi, Daniel J. Rosenkrantz, Richard E. Stearns, and Samarth Swarup. Beyond UVA, the Expeditions team is comprised of a diverse group of scientists and researchers with more than 600 total years of experience in related fields from 14 institutions, including: Arizona State University, The Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP), Indiana University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Princeton University, Stanford University, State University of New York at Albany, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Yale University.

“We’re ecstatic and grateful to the NSF for this grant that will enable us to work with a world-class team on developing tools that impact how epidemiology is practiced around the world,” Marathe said. “We’re confident that our work can help transform the global response to pandemics and enable more lives to be saved. This – the impact on the ground – is the best reward our team could receive from the work we’re doing.”

For more information about “Expeditions in Computing: Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology” (NSF Project Number: 1918656) or the Institute’s Expeditions in Computing project page, visit https://computational-epidemiology.org.