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UVA Biocomplexity Institute receives NSF award for a Virtual Organization focused on Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The UVA Biocomplexity Institute has received a $1.44M award from the National Science Foundation for a Virtual Organization (VO) that will facilitate communication and collaboration among CISE scientists currently involved in pandemic research through the NSF RAPID program. The Principal Investigator for this award is Madhav Marathe,  who is a Distinguished Professor in Biocomplexity, Director of the Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing (NSSAC) Division, Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative, and Professor of Computer Science.

With the guidance of a Steering Committee composed of members from industry, academia, and government agencies, the VO will encourage the sharing of research results in a way not available without a concerted effort. The depth and breadth of multi-disciplinary collaboration enabled by this VO will be extended to include researchers, educators, and students interested in general topics related to pandemic planning and resilience. Utilizing a variety of dissemination platforms, the VO will harness the synergies of the CISE RAPID research programs to facilitate scientific advances and advance public health in the US and around the world.

The VO will: (i) facilitate the collection of a comprehensive collection of data sets, software tools, and documentation that can be shared by the research community; (ii) identification of new research efforts resulting from the cross fertilization of ideas from various subdisciplines of CISE research; (iii) a research roadmap that proposes research directions in CISE sciences that can lead to effective methods to prepare for and recover from future pandemics; and (iv) training and other pedagogic materials needed for educating future generations of scientists in topics related to pandemic preparedness, recovery, and resilience. The increased levels of collaboration fostered by this VO have the potential to result in innovative computational methods and technologies for dealing with future pandemics. The research roadmap will include identification of key research topics, risks, and gaps in the current R&D landscape that will significantly benefit the research community and serve as the blueprint for researchers, funding agencies, and policy makers on the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in developing break-through solutions for pandemic resilience. While it is not possible to prevent pandemics completely, developing resilience techniques will enable society to prepare for and cope with the aftermath in a more effective manner.

Marathe is also the Principal Investigator for the recently awarded $10 million NSF collaborative grant for “Expeditions in Computing: Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology,” to revolutionize real-time epidemiology. The research team also includes Martin Blaser, Director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers University, and Simon Levin, Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

This award is the latest in a series of NSF awards received by researches associated with the UVA Biocomplexity Institute. Through its Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism, the NSF recently awarded the Biocomplexity Institute four grants totaling more than $280,000 for ongoing work related to COVID-19. The NSF RAPID grants are designated for “non-medical, non-clinical-care research that can be used immediately to explore how to model and understand the spread of COVID-19, to inform and educate the public about the science of virus transmission and prevention, and to encourage the development of processes and actions to address this global challenge.” The awards include the following:

  • IBSS: Understanding Social Diffusion Dynamics Among Networked Cognitive Systems. This project, led by Principal Investigator Mark Orr, research associate professor in the Institute’s NSSAC division, will research computational models of human response at the micro level (e.g. geographical regions, social groups, households, and individuals) to non-pharmaceutical epidemic interventions (NPIs), such as social distancing. The models will ultimately generate data that can be applied to a more broad-based macro level to guide health and government officials with decision-making about NPI response and interventions. “Human behavior is central to the dynamics of COVID-19,” Orr said. “We’re trying to understand how to leverage cognitive science, psychology, and artificial intelligence (AI) to build models of human behavior in the COVID-19 context.”
  • RAPID: Collaborative: Transfer Learning Techniques for Better Response to COVID-19 in the US. Led by Principal Investigator Madhav Marathe and Co-Principal Investigators Jiangzhuo Chen, Bryan Lewis, and Srinivasan Venkatramanan, Institute researchers received a $25,000 grant for research work focused on developing metapopulations and aggregate models for Wuhan, China, with newly available data. Using the concept of transfer learning in artificial intelligence (AI), the team is aiming to understand:  how the lessons from Wuhan can be transferred to other regions; whether the Wuhan epidemic will resume once the restrictions are lifted; and whether COVID-19 will become an endemic disease due to the specific biological properties of the virus and the development of strong herd immunity and advanced therapeutics.
  • RAPID: COVID-19 Response Support: Building Synthetic Multi-scale Networks. Led by Principal Investigator Madhav Marathe, director of the Biocomplexity Institute’s Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing (NSSAC) division,and Co-Principal Investigators Henning Mortveit and Srinivasan Venkatramanan, Institute researchers were awarded funding totaling more than $173,000 to build synthetic networks for developing accurate models of COVID-19 spread and intervention analysis. Using three different approaches, researchers will study spread and associated response at the community, subnational, national, and global levels. The data will be available to the global scientific community immediately through the NSF-funded CINES portal and other open repositories.
  • RAPID: Collaborative Research: Using Phylodynamics and Line Lists for Adaptive COVID-19 Monitoring. Led by Principal Investigator Anil Vullikanti, professor in the Institute’s NSSAC division and UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Institute researchers were awarded a $50,000 grant to study data-driven methods of improving COVID-19 surveillance with more targeted testing and intervention. The research team will develop processes, models, and actions to address the pandemic and understand its spread. “Efficient tracking of COVID-19 cases is crucial to controlling its spread, but is challenging due to the complexity of factors involved in transmission and the prevalence of missing data,” Vullikanti said. “This research project seeks to develop tools from data analytics to improve surveillance and make critical strides toward more successful tracking methodology.”

The Biocomplexity Institute has been at the forefront of epidemiological modeling to track the COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020. Institute researchers have developed a suite of COVID-19 Epidemic Response Resources to support healthcare systems and policy makers in making informed decisions for effective interventions and resource allocation. They have partnered with several U.S. and state government agencies to support informed decision-making including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and the Virginia Department of Health, among many others.