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Preparing for the next pandemic: NSF grants $1 million to UB to develop a rapid response system, build community trust


Wed, Sep 28th 2022 10:50 am

UB project addresses ‘alarming lack of collaboration’ that hampered pandemic response

By the University at Buffalo

They introduced genomic sequencing of the coronavirus to Western New York. They sampled wastewater to determine the level of the virus locally. They partnered with local groups to boost vaccinations and share scientific information in user-friendly ways.

“They” are University at Buffalo faculty. Their collective efforts since the start of the pandemic have resulted in numerous projects that have tangibly benefitted the local population.

Now, many of those researchers have been awarded an 18-month, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation aimed at developing ways to improve preparedness for the next pandemic.

“Given the wealth of cross-disciplinary innovations that UB faculty developed to help our community meet the many challenges of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, it is entirely fitting that they have now been selected to lead cutting-edge research into how best to tackle and prepare for the next one,” said Venu Govindaraju, Ph.D., UB vice president for research and economic development.

The new award brings together a large, diverse team of UB researchers from disciplines such as genetics, environmental engineering, mathematical modeling and community-based participatory research who leveraged their own expertise toward mitigation strategies during the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. Local community groups will also play a key role.

Establishing a Baseline

The grant is focused on developing an early warning system that can model, detect and predict changes both in viral communities and in human communities that indicate another pandemic may be emerging. The goal is to understand what is baseline or “normal” for both microbial and human ecosystems so that anything unusual can be readily recognized.

“There are so many viruses and pathogens that we already know about,” said Jennifer Surtees, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and principal investigator on the grant. She also co-directs UB’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence.

“We are exploring what is the best way to do routine monitoring for microbes we expect to find,” she said. “Once we better understand the community dynamics within our viral ecosystem through long-term monitoring of wastewater, then we will notice disruptions to the viral community, which may mean that a new virus has been introduced. If that happens, we can dig deep and start sequencing.”

The same idea will apply to gathering data that can detect changes in human behavior that might be signs of disruption to the human ecosystem. The researchers will be working on ways to integrate a broad range of data, from GPS data to hospital data to conversations on social media, any of which might reveal unusual behaviors.

“The question is, what sorts of information are good markers for disruption to our human ecosystem?” Surtees asked.

The researchers will also develop a framework for working with different communities; this will include developing oral histories about what happened to them during the pandemic in order to understand how their own behavior changed as a result.

Building Trust

At the same time, the grant addresses a key problem that hampered the pandemic response, which Surtees and her colleagues call “an alarming lack of collaboration and trust among researchers, public health officials, government and the public.”

“It won’t matter how good our early-warning system is if, when we do issue warnings, the community doesn’t respond,” Surtees said.

To build trust with the public, the UB team will build on its strong relationships with a number of local and regional partners.

“We have solid relationships with the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Buffalo Public Schools and others – and we will be working to strengthen the trust that we have developed already,” Surtees said. “We will be integrating these groups into what we are doing and helping to build a more resilient community.”

The grant proposal cites guidelines from the World Health Organization, which prioritize developing relationships with community groups and having “community conversations” with the public, as opposed to simply delivering information.

The UB team plans to apply for major national center grants focused on pandemic preparedness that will be soliciting proposals starting next year.

Co-principal investigators on the award are E. Bruce Pitman, Ph.D., professor of materials design and innovation; Wen Dong, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science and engineering; and YinYin Ye, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, all of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, Ph.D., director of community translational research in the department of family medicine in the Jacobs School.

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