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UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor's research into pandemic preparedness funded by $1 million National Science Foundation grant

Dr. Akihiro Nishi, UCLA Fielding School assistant professor of epidemiology, to serve as co-principal investigator on NSF-funded project

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Dr. Akihiro Nishi, UCLA Fielding School assistant professor of epidemiology, will serve as co-principal investigator on a $1 million National Science Foundation project to improve pandemic preparedness.

"Our UCLA team will lead the social and behavioral science components of the project and work with infectious disease modelers, computer scientists, and others in UT Austin and other universities,” Nishi said. “We aim to use the real infection, social media, and mobility data during the COVID-19 pandemic and the monkeypox outbreak for our analysis, but at the same time, we will also be working ahead on preparedness for unknown pathogens.”

The NSF has selected the University of Texas at Austin for a pilot grant to establish the UT Center for Pandemic Decision Science (CPDS). The new interdisciplinary center will bring together scientists, engineers, clinicians and policymakers to tackle the grand challenge of preparing the world to combat future pandemic threats.

“This represents an ambitious next step for the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium,” said Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and statistics and data sciences who is directing the effort. “Over the last three years, the consortium has been a leading force in pandemic forecasting to help individuals, schools, communities and global leaders navigate the changing risks of the virus.”

The new center will tackle three fundamental challenges that plagued the global response to COVID-19 and are critical to the future resilience of our planet, including anticipating novel pathogen threats and detecting them at their source; forecasting and positively influencing individual, collective and governmental responses to pathogen threats; and integrating science into every stage of pandemic decision-making, including prevention, detection, containment and mitigation.

“COVID-19 revealed a fundamental failure of imagination,” Meyers said. “Leading into 2020, we assumed that the next pandemic would resemble those we have seen in the past. But COVID-19 was different. The international playbook did not include face masks, mass testing or stay-at-home orders. It did not plan for misinformation campaigns, devastating racial disparities, years of lost education or breakneck viral evolution.”

There are more than 40 multidisciplinary investigators from 11 institutions collaborating to establish the new CPDS. During the next 18 months, the center will host five workshops and conduct five pilot projects, including a hackathon to forecast human health behaviors and a pathogen “wargame” exercise for Texas public agencies.

These activities are designed to “build a road map for closing fundamental gaps in our understanding of pandemics,” Meyers said. The new center will also provide educational and research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students at UT.

UT Austin is the coordinating institution for the $1 million PIPP Phase I grant; along with UCLA, other partners include researchers with Northwestern University and the University of Idaho, along with the City of Austin, the Santa Fe Institute, and the Center for Advanced Pathogen Threat and Response Simulation.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, founded in 1961, is dedicated to enhancing the public's health by conducting innovative research, training future leaders and health professionals from diverse backgrounds, translating research into policy and practice, and serving our local communities and the communities of the nation and the world. The school has 761 students from 26 nations engaged in carrying out the vision of building healthy futures in greater Los Angeles, California, the nation and the world.