NSF Awards $1M to Multi-Disciplinary Team to Plan Pandemic Prevention Hub

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The new grant funds 18 months of work on a Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention (PIPP) Center to offer a cohesive public health digital infrastructure for public health officials and the general public.

San Diego, CA, July 18, 2022 — A multi-campus, multi-disciplinary team led by scientists at UC San Diego has been awarded $1 million from the National Science Foundation to plan a new center to prevent and rapidly contain disease outbreaks and their negative effects on health, the economy and society.

“Despite recent efforts, there is still no cohesive global operational network for integrating pandemic prevention, prediction, sensing and response,” said the grant’s principal investigator Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, a UC San Diego assistant professor of infectious diseases and global public health, as well as a physician-scientist with the university’s Qualcomm Institute (QI), Design Lab Center for Health, and School of Medicine.

“The integration of these components is an overarching grand challenge,” he continued, “that must be solved to create a truly holistic pandemic intelligence and response capable of matching the dynamic nature of pathogen emergence.”

The grant funds 18 months of Phase 1 work on the new Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention (PIPP) Center. To offer a cohesive public health digital infrastructure for public health officials and the general public, the center will leverage a range of resources—digital exposure notification and contact tracing, molecular epidemiology data and tools, environmental surveillance, social media activity, mobility data and home testing and treatment capacity. The center will employ human-centered design and community-based participatory approaches to ensure the team’s questions and responses are grounded in the realities of communities most affected by outbreaks.

“Given the rise of new COVID variants and now monkeypox, we need this type of research more than ever,” said Davey Smith, chief of the UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health and director of the Pandemic Response to Emerging Pathogens, Antimicrobial Resistance, and Equity (PREPARE) Institute.

‘A Remarkable Team’

Leading the grant with Aronoff-Spencer are co-principal investigators Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy at UC Riverside; Mark S. Handcock, professor of statistics at UCLA; Mohsen Malekinejad, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF; and QI affiliate Anita Raj, professor of infectious diseases and global public health and of education studies at UC San Diego.

The team intends to build on insights from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has shown how effective pandemic response must go beyond addressing just the scientific challenges to also focus on factors like education, community outreach, trust in the public health system, and healthcare access,” said Carpiano. “The PIPP Center's multidisciplinary approach is required for not only developing the most timely, comprehensive assessments of such quickly-evolving situations, but also for engaging with public officials and other stakeholders in different sectors in order to design and put into action the most optimal policy solutions."

Handcock agreed that integrated and interdisciplinary approaches are necessary to deal with future pandemics. “As a statistician, I know that data will be incomplete and unrepresentative,” he said. “Only by working closely with other scientists will we be able to understand it and forge pandemic intelligence and provide insight. The PIPP Center will proactively bring these disciplines together. It is exciting and important.”

For Raj, the center’s multidisciplinary approach also involves addressing the fact that outbreaks and their negative socioeconomic and health consequences are not experienced equally. “Inequalities based on race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomics have created unequal COVID-19 health impacts, which in turn exacerbated these existing inequalities and likely fostered some of the growing civil unrest we see today,” she said. “Our outbreak solutions must address these inequalities at all levels.”

Other investigators contributing to the center include UC San Diego’s Andrew Bartko, executive director for the Center for Microbiome Innovation; Massimo Franceschetti, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Ravi Goyal, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases & Global Public Health; Drew Hall, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Camille Nebeker, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health; Ramesh Rao, director of the Qualcomm Institute; and Ilya Zaslavsky, director of Spatial Information Systems Laboratory at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Rao, who was instrumental in bringing members of the PIPP team together, said: “I wanted to leverage Calit2's multi-campus alliance, as well as our experience with the use of advanced data-centric approaches to ensure safe operation of our advanced facilities during the COVID pandemic. This is a prime example of the innovative, multi-disciplinary projects the Qualcomm Institute facilitates.”

“We have assembled a remarkable team spanning computer, data and information science, biology, engineering, and social, behavioral and economic sciences,” said Aronoff-Spencer. “I look forward to what we can accomplish together.”