Epidemiological platform to be developed with $3.5 million grant

Thanks to a $3.5 million grant, a revolutionary epidemiological platform will be developed using mathematical modelling to leverage the combined powers of math, statistics, computing and data and utilize it in the study of disease spread and ultimately predict the future course of outbreaks.

Assistant professor Joe Mihaljevic of Northern Arizona University’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems (SICCS) has been working with public health partners across the state and the country to share computer models mapping the spread of the coronavirus. Mihaljevic, a disease ecologist who applies epidemiological modeling techniques to wildlife and, more recently, to human diseases, was awarded more than $3.5 million by the National Institutes for Health to take modeling to the next level with EpiMoRPH (Epidemiological Modeling Resources for Public Health), which will substantially automate and expedite the development of epidemiological models.

The project will use two different virus-based diseases as case studies: COVID-19 and SLEV (St. Louis Encephalitis Virus), but EpiMoRPH will work with any transmissible pathogen affecting humans, animals, or even plants.

“EpiMoRPH will provide a framework for characterizing meta-population disease models,” Mihaljevic said, “supporting rapid model development and uniform evaluation of models against data benchmarks. Beyond that, however, EpiMoRPH will provide an accessible interface for public health professionals to identify models relevant to their locale and to then use these models to generate municipality-specific forecasts.”

Mihaljevic’s co-investigators on the project are SICCS professor Eck Doerry, who will lead software development and cloud-based computing; SICCS associate professor Crystal Hepp, also with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), who will lead the procurement and management of surveillance data on viral cases; and Samantha Sabo, associate professor from NAU’s Center for Health Equity Research, who will assist with mobilizing and liaising with public health partners and lead the efforts in formal assessment.

NAU investigators will work with researchers from several other institutions, including Esma Gel from University of Nebraska, who will assist with optimization theory and algorithm developments; Sanjay Mehrotra from Northwestern University, who will lead the overall work on optimization theory development; and Timothy Lant from Arizona State University, who will assist with mobilizing and coordinating a Public Health Advisory Council.

The team will form a Public Health Advisory Council (PHAC) consisting of 15 local, regional and national stakeholders in public health and epidemiological modeling who will provide critical input and evaluation on the system as it is being developed. Collaborators from the Arizona Department of Health Services, with whom Mihaljevic and his team have worked extensively during the COVID-19 pandemic, will be part of this effort.

“The PHAC will help us better understand the logistical constraints and drive the development of the user interface so that it reflects the level of detail required by the intended users,” Mihaljevic said. “We will work closely with the advisory council to evaluate and refine our technologies, ensuring that our innovations meet the evolving needs of public health partners, while also appealing to the community of epidemiological modelers.”

In addition, many graduate and undergraduate students in informatics and computer science will assist with efforts to develop the web-based cyberinfrastructures, coding automation scripts and writing technical documentation. Two undergraduate researchers in public health will assist the team’s efforts to conduct formal evaluations of the technology and develop outreach methods with the PHAC.

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