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Public health

Johns Hopkins researchers play lead roles in epidemic preparedness project

Center for Health Security, others from across Hopkins receive CDC funding to help communities prepare for future emerging health threats

Cagla Giray
Barbara Benham
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(410) 614-6029

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has received a five-year, $23.5 million award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to conduct an epidemic preparedness project.

A second group of Johns Hopkins researchers is part of a separate, multi-university team that will receive $22.5M from the CDC over the next five years to develop innovative methods for forecasting infectious disease spread and building capacity to respond to outbreaks. The award establishes the new Atlantic Coast Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and Analytics, a collaboration between the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins University, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the University of Florida, and the University of Pittsburgh.

"This initiative is a crucial step in fortifying our nation's defenses against future epidemics."
Caitlin Rivers
Senior scholar, Center for Health Security

Overall, awards announced Tuesday established 13 projects as part of the CDC's multisite Outbreak Analytics and Disease Modeling Network. The goal of this new network is to stimulate the development and deployment of innovative analytic tools that can inform decision-making during infectious disease outbreaks. It will ensure that universities and public health agencies can effectively collaborate, share data and staff, and provide timely forecasts and analyses during crises.

The Center for Health Security's project—Toward Epidemic Preparedness: Enhancing Public Health Infrastructure and Incorporating Data-Driven Tools—will establish large-scale partnerships with traditional and nontraditional public health stakeholders across the country and train public health students, practitioners, and modelers to use modeling and analytics tools for the full spectrum of epidemic responses. The project will engage a variety of groups, including state and local public health departments, elected leaders, public health decision-makers, and meteorologists. The Center for Health Security is based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The project is led by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security senior scholars Caitlin Rivers and Crystal Watson. Rivers returned to the Center for Health Security last year after serving as the CDC's Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics founding associate director from August 2021 to June 2022.

"This initiative is a crucial step in fortifying our nation's defenses against future epidemics," says Rivers, an epidemiologist who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, which spans the Bloomberg School and the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. "Through collaborative partnerships and the deployment of data-driven tools, we aim to empower public health professionals, decision-makers, and communities across the country to proactively respond to emerging health threats."

Adds Watson, a risk assessment and preparedness expert who is also an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering: "This project enables our team to promote nationwide adoption of data analytics tools with new and established partners. Building analytical and communication skills is vital for aiding policymakers in gathering, understanding, and acting on evidence during health crises."

The CDC created the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics in 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the CDC center has also worked on responses to monkeypox, polio, and acute pediatric hepatitis.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for the Bloomberg School to work with the CDC to build on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and help create prevention and response systems that are robust, resilient, and ready for the challenges ahead," says Ellen J. MacKenzie, dean of the Bloomberg School. "I am proud that Caitlin Rivers and Crystal Watson will play such key roles in transforming our approach to preparedness. By promoting innovative resources and tools and nurturing stronger collaborations across sectors, they will be protecting health and preserving lives around the nation."

The Center for Health Security will work with colleagues across the Bloomberg School and Johns Hopkins University, including the Johns Hopkins Center for Teaching and Learning, to implement this project. In the project's first year, the team will work directly with partner organizations to better understand decision-makers' information needs and to explore how modeling and analytics can help improve decision-making during public health emergencies.

"This project will allow our center to focus on a new and critical domain of work that holds immense potential for enhancing our country's preparedness for future epidemics," says Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security. "We are committed to working with our partners to establish systems, processes, and collaborations for integrating modeling and analytics into the management of routine and seasonal respiratory viruses as well as potential infectious disease emergencies."

The Atlantic Coast Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and Analytics project, or ACCIDDA, will be co-led by Justin Lessler and Kim Powers at the University of North Carolina and Shaun Truelove , an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The team will take on two roles in the new network:

  • Developing advanced modeling methods for epidemic projections
  • Establishing new data sources to more effectively conduct disease surveillance

In addition, as the coordinating center, ACCIDDA will oversee the coordination of the efforts, strategic vision, and transition of analytical methods between the 13 funded partners in the network.

The Johns Hopkins team brings together expertise from across the university, including faculty members from the Bloomberg School (Truelove, Amy Wesolowski, Emily Gurley, Saki Takahashi, Laura Hammitt, and Catherine Sutcliff), the School of Medicine (Alison Hill, Kate Grabowski, and Eili Klein), and the Whiting School of Engineering (Lauren Gardner). The team has worked together closely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard and Coronavirus Resource Center, to develop models to track and predict COVID-19 spread, health care utilization, and the impact of control policies.

Lessler and collaborator Derek Cummings (University of Florida) are both former Bloomberg School faculty members.

Correction: The amount of the Center for Health Security award was misstated in an earlier version of this article. The Hub regrets the error.