Northeastern will lead a new virus outbreak prediction center. Here’s what to know.

Health

The new center at Northeastern will track infectious diseases and provide outbreak forecasts to communities, sort of like a “National Weather Service for epidemics.”

A picture of a black Northeastern University campus sign.
Northeastern University received funding from the CDC to lead a new center that tracks infectious diseases and forecasts outbreaks. Rodrique Ngowi/Associated Press

When COVID-19 rapidly spread across the nation, infectious disease experts were caught off guard, and hospitals were severely overwhelmed. A new center, led by Northeastern University, hopes to remedy that possibility with outbreak forecasts offered weeks ahead of a potential spread. 

Northeastern is set to receive $17.5 million over the next five years from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for “EPISTORM: The Center for Advanced Epidemic Analytics and Predictive Modeling Technology.”

The center is meant to operate as a “National Weather Service for epidemics,” meaning that those involved in the center will work to provide data to communities and hospitals ahead of a surge in cases so that they can prepare earlier. 

“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,” said Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family Distinguished University professor, in a press release. Vespignani will also be the head of EPISTORM.

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The center will prioritize rural communities. The press release said the center wants to provide information about “all possible threats,” from known viruses like Ebola and Zika, to novel viruses like the coronavirus. 

They’ll use tools like wastewater surveillance and artificial intelligence “to integrate wastewater, pathogen genomic, and high-resolution mobility data into operationally relevant forecasting models.”

“It will be the place where there will be monitoring, forecasting, and scenario analysis for the country about all possible threats,” Vespignani said. 

The country, including Massachusetts, has seen COVID-19 cases tick up, and public health officials see cases of the flu and RSV spike around this time of year. The center hopes to provide data and forecasts during times of surge peaks as well.

Other universities, health care systems and private companies will be involved in the center’s work, including Boston University and Boston diagnostics center Concentric by Ginkgo.

EPISTORM is part of a larger network funded by the CDC. Through the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, the agency announced it was funding $250 million into 13 centers, including five innovation centers, one of those being Northeastern. 

“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 said.

Vespignani and his team were heavily involved in tracking data during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and were one of several groups to advise the White House on coronavirus policies, according to the press release. The CDC’s network is in its planning stages now, and it isn’t immediately clear what the timeline looks like for providing forecast information on infectious diseases.


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