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CDC Awards $17.5M to Team Led by UC San Diego to Strengthen Response to Disease Outbreaks

Partnering with San Diego County, the project brings together experts from four UC campuses, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Washington

UC San Diego's Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, M.D., Ph.D., is principal investigator of the project, which will develop innovative tools and networks to respond rapidly to emerging disease outbreaks. (Photo by Erik Jepsen)

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has awarded $17.5 million to a coalition led by researchers at UC San Diego to develop innovative tools and networks to respond rapidly to emerging disease outbreaks.

“While we’ve made progress, the COVID pandemic underlined the gaps in our systems to rapidly and effectively respond to infectious disease threats,” said Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, M.D., Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator (PI), who is at UC San Diego as assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at the School of Medicine, Design Lab faculty and director of the Center for Health Design, and Qualcomm Institute affiliate and Executive Council member. “This project brings together a fantastic team to integrate the best forecasting and analytic approaches with the best data so public health officials can prevent, predict, preempt, prepare for, and mitigate these threats.”

"The award of this grant from the CDC shows the continued impact of UC San Diego in forging new paradigms in public health and medicine," said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. "This effort to bring together multidisciplinary and diverse expertise will drive the development of groundbreaking solutions. We are proud to contribute to increasing the resilience of our region and others across the nation."

The project, which partners with the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, includes experts from UCLA, UCSF, UC Riverside, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Washington.

“A variety of informal partnerships between modelers and public health authorities sprang up during the pandemic,” noted grant co-PI Mark S. Handcock, Ph.D., who is distinguished professor of statistics at UCLA. “Now there’s a valuable opportunity to formalize and strengthen these collaborations and to determine the optimal ways for modeling and modelers to support health authorities in a proactive and strategic manner. That’s what this project aims to do.”

“This work will leverage the strong existing partnership between UC San Diego’s epidemic modelers and the County, which has informed critical decision-making during the hepatitis A outbreak of 2017-2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Eric McDonald, M.D., M.P.H., interim agency director for the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. “As the integration partner for this grant, the County will benefit from the modeling and forecasting efforts and have wider access to important tools and information that will better inform decision-making during ongoing and future epidemics and spreads of infectious diseases.”

The title of the grant, which was issued to UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute, is Resilient Shield: A Network for Outbreak Data Integration and Modeling to Support Rapid Public Health Action. Funding begins September 29 and runs for five years.

“A critical element of the project is to analyze data sources for predictive power and utility,” said co-PI Ruy Ribeiro, Ph.D., staff scientist in theoretical biology and biophysics at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Data sources will include not only molecular epidemiology—which can provide early identification of variants of concern, transmission rate estimates, and information on active growing clusters—but also wastewater and air surveillance; exposure notification systems (smartphones and contact tracing); internet searches and posts; legally available clinical data; and scenario-based simulations.

Co-PI Natasha Martin, D.Phil., professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine, noted, “During the successful UCSD Return to Learn COVID-19 mitigation program, we developed an innovative, adaptive, and iterative process of data integration and modeling to inform rapid, data-driven decisions on campus. With this grant, we will test our adaptive modeling process with San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency, which, if successful, will serve as a blueprint for how modeling can best be used to inform public health action.”

Pilot testing will include communities and populations in San Diego County that have been historically left behind, including the ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak in persons experiencing homelessness, HIV outbreak clusters (for example, in people who use drugs), as well as retrospective analyses of responses to disease agents like SARS-COV2, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, particularly in vulnerable populations.

The team will measure its success by its ability to provide useful and timely modeling and outbreak data visualizations to inform public health decisions when the County needs it most. The work in San Diego is also intended to act as a reference design for improving analytics, modeling, and forecasting in U.S. health jurisdictions across the country.

“This project brings together experts in public health practice at state and local health departments, modeling and informatics,” said co-PI William Lober, professor of Health Informatics and Global Health in the Schools of Nursing, Medicine, and Public Health at the University of Washington. “Together, and with our federal partners at CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, we’ll create resources that can be used routinely to inform public health decisions and that can be scaled rapidly to respond to public health emergencies.”

The consortium was one of 13 partners funded to work alongside the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to establish an outbreak response network that uses data to support decision makers during public health emergencies.

“One of the lessons learned from the recent pandemic is that we cannot continue working within our academic silos or immediate geographical reach and expect to overcome grand global health challenges,” added co-PI Mohsen Malekinejad, M.D., Dr.P.H., who is associate professor of epidemiology and global health at UCSF. “We built an interdisciplinarity team of experts across the state border lines to be able to address several key issues that have been hindering timely and effective outbreak forecasting and response. I am extremely excited to witness the next steps in this collaboration, as this grant will allow us to further develop and expand our data sharing systems, analytical infrastructure, research, and training capacities in the field.”

Additional investigators on the grant include Carrie Manore, Ph.D., of Los Alamos National Laboratory; George Rutherford, M.D., of UCSF; Mark Beatty, M.D., M.P.H., Seema Shah, M.D., and Wilma Wooten, M.D., M.P.H., of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency; Ravi Goyal, Ph.D., Ilya Zaslavsky, Ph.D., Joel Wertheim, Ph.D., Andy Bartko, Ph.,D., Shamim Nemati, Ph.D., Ramesh Rao, Ph.D., Davey Smith, M.D., Robert Schooley, M.D., and Camille Nebeker, Ed.D., of UC San Diego; and Richard Carpiano, Ph.D., M.P.H., of UC Riverside.

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