By Bill Beaver and Yong-Bee Lim
With good reason, the U.S. government is prioritizing pathogen early warning and taking biological threats seriously. In its National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, the Biden Administration announced plans to support the establishment of a National Center for Epidemic Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to modernize global early warning and trigger systems to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats. In one of President Biden’s earliest executive orders, the National Security Adviser was directed to provide recommendations on epidemic modelling and forecasting.
The Biden administration seems to be accelerating work in this area, building on important progress advancing over the past year—including in much-needed public-private cooperation. The National Science Foundation, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) co-hosted a summit on November 12-13, 2020, to lay the foundations for a federal and non-federal science and technology roadmap fordetecting and predicting infectious-disease spread, with the aim of creating a system analogous to weather forecasting. In late February a report on the summit was released, and here are some of our main take-aways:
- The risk is real: Participants of the summit discussed the US need to enhance its ability to respond to intentional or accidental releases of biological agents. Summit participants also argued that improving capacity and capability in this area is a critical need for the country in light of rising risks associated with deliberate, accidental, and natural biological events.
- The time to invest is now: To address these future risks and affect stable, lasting change, monetary and intellectual investments need to be made in areas like data standardization, acquisition, and analytics, multidisciplinary coordination and input, and a feasible infrastructure that centralizes, processes and generates epidemiological models with output that is both valuable for policy and actionable for public health interventions and messaging.
- We need to know where we are going: Participants also identified specific actions for creating a national R&D roadmap for epidemic modeling and prediction. The U.S. does not have one at the moment. Such a roadmap should emphasize working with other nations on where we need to go and what we need to do together
- Planning and buy-in from diverse entities are essential: The CDC and Department of Defense have global disease surveillance and modelling programs, including for the SARS-CoV-2 spread. But the effort needs to move beyond the federal government. The research and development roadmap the U.S. government intends to update should take into account international efforts while also involving the private sector. Participants also noted that sustained, coordinated efforts require infrastructure for future efforts—infrastructure for the next SARS needs to be put in place now.
It is important in itself that the virtual summit brought government, academic, and industry stakeholders together to discuss the current state of epidemiological modeling and prediction and priority directions for future research. The benefits of creating U.S. epidemiological forecasting and modelling capabilities are many and include allowing for more targeted health interventions. For example, having better forecasting and modeling capabilities today might have allowed for more effective and timely distribution of scarce vaccines in areas of the country before they are hard hit.
Biological threats are also evolving. Advances in the life sciences introduce changing risks for the deliberate research and development of biological weapons – a fact that may incentivize certain state and non-state actors to pursue them in light of the regional and global impact of events ranging from letters filled with powdery substances to COVID-19. Climate change-related phenomena like deforestation, mass migration of human and animal populations to cooler climates, and increased human-animal interactions as livable landmass decreases, are accelerating the pace and increasing the severity of pandemics. Unfortunately, responding to the rising tide of pandemic threats by building more labs to study emergent biological threats, particularly through gain of function experiments, can also undermine biosecurity, including through accidental releases.
Between these trends and the clear impact of natural outbreaks that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, it is critical that U.S. government leaders build a robust forecasting and modelling capability – “weather forecasting” for infectious diseases – to get ahead of future biological threats.