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America needs a national center for infectious disease intelligence

America needs a national center for infectious disease intelligence
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America needs a national center for infectious disease intelligence whose mission is to monitor trends and provide a real-time interpretation of outbreak data through modeling, biostatistics, and data science. This idea has been bandied about at least since the Obama administration and reiterated recently in Johns Hopkins University’s reports A Road Map to Reopening and Modernizing and Expanding Outbreak Science

Such an agency may cost billions and take time to plan and implement, but we can take the first step now, which is to create a national network of the people and organizations where the essential talent lies. In the U.S., most (but not all) of this talent is in academic institutions. During each of the recent major epidemics — influenza in 2009, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2015, and the current COVID-19 pandemic — this academic talent self-organized to provide real-time situation awareness, analysis of options for containment, and forecasts to support the CDC and other agencies in their operational missions.

There are two problems with relying on this academic talent alone, however. Both are related to the fact that the academic mission is primarily to push the boundaries of education, knowledge and technology.

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First, academic research labs are typically funded through relatively small, short-term grants and staffed by a temporary workforce of students and postdocs. Students have classes to take and theses to write. Postdoctoral researchers in science, analogous to clinical residents in medicine, focus on building their skills and preparing for the transition to be principal investigators. Sponsored projects have deadlines and deliverables. These facts mean that academic labs do not readily retain talent and, although they can pivot quickly, soon also need to pivot back. 

Second, academic labs are structured to perform research that is typically experimental and exploratory. They are not set up for product development, software engineering, service delivery or data warehousing. They don’t typically stockpile information or software but acquire or create needed resources on a project-by-project basis. Academics demonstrate concepts and make prototypes.

For these reasons, universities should not be the primary home of America’s infectious disease intelligence. But, since universities are where the majority of the talent is, this is where we should start. I envision a network of academic labs, funded for five years to support scientific staff working under the supervision of the faculty that make up this first-rate but relatively small pool of expertise. 

Establishing a network, rather than a single-center, is important. The current talent base is widely distributed throughout the country but interacts effectively through scientific organizations and the NIH-supported MIDAS network. Even more important, it is well known that a plurality of models provides better information than anyone model, even if it’s the best. To do this requires providing reliable core funding to multiple groups that have expertise in different methodologies, enabling each to dive deep, yet surface to share findings and data.

Establishing this network is also important for building a stable workforce of infectious disease data scientists, or “quants." There are not currently enough data scientists who also possess relevant domain expertise. Even more in demand are experimental scientists — virologists, microbiologists, immunologists, and geneticists — who have been cross-trained in dynamical systems, stochastic processes, statistical estimation, numerical analysis, machine learning, agent-based computing, information visualization, algorithm design and simulation. Funding 10 academic centers of excellence for five years would enable the training of students and cross-training of postdocs that are needed to staff a future national center.

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I estimate that the five-year cost of a national academic network for infectious disease intelligence will be less than $190 million, which is less than 0.003 percent of the $7.9 trillion the COVID-19 crisis has cost the U.S. so far.

The time to establish this network is this summer. Due to COVID-19, there has been a tremendous consolidation of knowledge, methodology, and focus. COVID-19 will still be with us in the fall when most universities will be opening up again. But, the faculty, graduate students, and postdocs who have been working on COVID-19 will need to redirect their attention to classes not taught, sponsored projects neglected, and theses not written during the Spring and Summer of 2020. The time to establish this network is now, during the summer, before the collective expertise becomes fragmented once again.

There is much to be determined about the final shape of a future national center for infectious disease intelligence. Should it be located in Washington or Atlanta or somewhere else? Should it be a division of an existing agency or a new one? Answering these questions will require careful thought and consideration. But, regardless of its final shape, the path forward is through academia, because that is where our talent is right now. We need to keep this talent intact and on a mission. 

John M. Drake is a professor and director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia.