CDC awards Northeastern $17.5 million for pandemic preparedness

Photo: Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images

Northeastern University in Boston will receive $15.5 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the next five years to create an innovation center designed to help detect and prepare the country for the next outbreak of infectious disease, especially in rural areas.

Called “EPISTORM: The Center for Advanced Epidemic Analytics and Predictive Modeling Technology,” it will be headed by Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor.

CDC funds will help Northeastern coordinate the work of consortium members across the country to work out systems to prepare local communities and hospitals in their geographic region for outbreaks, with rural areas given top priority.

Seasonal flu and RSV outbreaks already push community hospitals to the brink, said Vespignani. 

“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,” he said.


Northeastern’s EPISTORM center will lead a consortium of 10 research institutions, healthcare systems and private companies that will use tools including wastewater surveillance, AI and machine learning, and other predictive analytics to help the U.S. make more informed decisions during future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

It will house monitoring, forecasting and scenario analysis capabilities focused on all possible threats, from known diseases such as Ebola, Zika and COVID-19 to novel infections.

The innovation center will use methods from artificial intelligence and network science to integrate wastewater and mobility data into relevant forecasting models. Responders in the field will also include nonmedical government authorities and operators of transportation systems, who will be given information about whether a flight route should remain open or closed in response to a disease outbreak, for instance.

Northeastern is one of five national innovation centers established by the CDC as part of a new outbreak response network being funded through the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. The network consists of a total of 13 centers, including the five focusing on innovation.

In addition to Northeastern, the consortium’s academic members include Boston University, Indiana University, the University of Florida and the University of California at San Diego.

Other members are the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, MaineHealth, Northern Light Health and Concentric Ginkgo Bioworks.

The center activities also are being supported by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.


The news comes as various entities are tracking the progress of the COVID-19 virus across the country. NBC News reported this week that a recent uptick in the virus’ prevalence may have peaked, at least in some areas. Biobot Analytics, a company that tracks wastewater samples at hundreds of sites across the country, found that current average coronavirus levels across the U.S. are about 5% lower than they were last week.

Declines were seen in mid-Atlantic states such as Virginia and Maryland, but water collection sites in the Midwest and Northeast continue to show a steady uptick in virus spread.


Twitter: @JELagasse
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