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Alliance Discussion with Dr. Rita Colwell: How innovative strategies are preparing us for the next public health emergency

Where and when will the next infectious disease outbreak occur? How can we ensure that our public health system is prepared? Dr. Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland College Park, Founder of CosmosID, Inc., former Director of the National Science Foundation, and the recipient of Research!America’s 2024 Builders of Science Award, joined us recently for an alliance discussion about just that. She spoke about strategies and tools that she has used to track outbreaks in globally and how these strategies and other advances may better prepare public health for the next outbreak. Here are some of her thoughts:

New research to be excited about:

“Well, I vacillated between the CRISPR, which allows modification of the human genome, and the wonderful vaccine that saved us from COVID, the mRNA vaccine, which I think is very, very exciting, but I’m going to come down on the CRISPR. Because I think that really provides an opportunity to make very broad spread change. Just one example is the sickle cell modification – the gene modification – which brings health back to people and I think that is terrific. So those are probably the most exciting breakthroughs, in my view, that been occurring in biotechnology, in medicine, in general.”

Preventing waterborne diseases through community-engaged projects:

“I think fundamentally, and this is about as fundamental as you can get, it’s safe water and proper sanitation. That’s critical, and it’s at the basis of public health. For developing countries, I think this is the biggest issue, and this is why I spent a lot of my time with Safe Water Network. It’s an organization that, right now, is operating very effectively in Ghana and in some parts of India, where it’s bringing safe water kiosk devices, but doing it in a way that empowers the community. So, they (the community) own, run, and operate the safe water delivery system. I think that’s really the most critical task that we have globally as a humanitarian society.”

Using satellite sensors to detect and track disease outbreaks:

“I started out studying the causative agent of cholera and, to my surprise, discovered that it was a marine bacterium that’s widely distributed throughout the world’s oceans. In fact, I would consider zooplankton the vector for cholera. So, this vector doesn’t fly like mosquitoes, it swims. What we have been able to do is determine the relationship of environmental parameters (temperature, salinity, etc.) [and cholera]. Landsat, the satellite, was launched in about 1985 and it occurred to me that this would be a terrific way to monitor the potential the risk of cholera. So, we did a little study where we downloaded the data from this Landsat satellite and with a little computational work, we were able to show that indeed, the number of cholera cases follow almost point for point the temperature of the ocean off the Bay of Bengal, in Bangladesh, in the Sundarbans right near the water. That led to our first publication some 24 years ago, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, where we suggested that satellites could be used to predict risks.”

“We now have a very powerful, somewhere between 80 or 90% accuracy, of predicting a potential risk of cholera. And we tested this in 2017, when that horrible cholera epidemic broke out in Yemen. It was really at that point the worst in recorded history. So, we did a retrospective analysis, published the data, the publication was picked up very quickly by a colleague in England who worked for the British agency, and he telephoned us in January and said, “Hey, could you provide us a four-to-eight-week prediction for Yemen, geographically where the risk would be the highest?” So, we teamed up and we were able to do just that. They were then able to provide medical care, safe water, medical supplies, exactly where needed and we were able to contribute to the reduction of cholera cases and deaths in Yemen.”

“So, now we have continued to do this kind of predictive sensing for Yemen, Ethiopia, and a variety of other countries, some 11 or 12 countries. In fact, we are really moving to a global application of being able to use satellite sensing with this computational model. Now we’re introducing some artificial intelligence and being able to predict when and where outbreaks will occur. What’s very exciting news is that we picked up signals in Sudan well before the outbreak occurred.”

The importance of a coordinated response between federal agencies to emerging health threats:

“Right after the [2001] anthrax attacks occurred, […] it was a terrible time, very frightening. I put together a team of every agency – NIH, NSF, DOE, Department of Defense, FDA, Department of Agriculture, Homeland Security – to work together as a team, to use the new DNA sequencing technology to track down the perpetrator. […] And what was very interesting is that I learned a couple of important things. That is, agencies need to collaborate and share data. That’s something that, in a study that I chaired for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on science during a disaster, is that the federal agencies, some of them are not able to share data one with another. I do think that we need to have a change in that legislation so that data can be shared, and collaboration can be effective. So, what did I learn? I learned that when you collaborate, and bring some smart scientists together, and work very effectively on a single goal and task, you can achieve amazing kinds of successes. It was it was an exciting time. I’ve written it up and I was allowed to publish the CIA approved the FBI approved [excerpts] in a book called A Lab of One’s Own where I describe this, say odyssey, over three to five years.”

How scientists can advocate for increasing investment in research:

“I think it’s really critical that we have a unified voice. What I think was most successful was that I didn’t go to Congress asking for across the board increase because science is important. Everything needs to be funded. What I did was achieve a consensus amongst my staff, and obviously, from the weight of the proposals that were coming in requesting funding, where the priorities were. We came down to three or four priorities, one of which was computational science. So, we were able to argue forcefully and effectively, and receive a billion dollars in new funding for computers. I made sure that that initiative was a shared initiative; that the bulk of it, of course, would go to the computational directorate of NSF, but every directorate would have a piece of that action. […] So, I think it’s a willingness to collaborate and to provide a message that’s powerful to the White House and then to Congress, but more importantly, to our fellow citizens.”

How the world can be better prepared for a future infectious disease outbreak since COVID-19:

“Well, I’m going to say what I believe strongly is that we have not invested in public health. We have severely under invested in the capacity of communities to collaborate and cooperate. For example, in that study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on Science During Crisis, it became very clear that what we really need to do is to have coordination. And in fact, every governor should have a chief scientist and that chief scientist should be able to coordinate the activities within the states, so that when a state has a disaster, there can be a mobilization by a gathering of those chief scientists from all 50 states to collaborate, coordinate and deal with the pandemic.”

Recommendations for scientists who want to engage more with the public:

“I think it’s critical to speak frequently with the general public through the Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, and Chambers of Commerce lunch meetings. I, as director of NSF, made a point of going to the Rotary Club lunches, to talk about what was going on in science, engineering, and technology funded by the National Science Foundation. The other thing that I think is important is to participate in the local schools. I have two children; when they were going through school, I would get invited to come and talk to their class about my work and about science, and I always did that.”

The response to public health emergencies:

“I think a strategic plan is critical for the nation. And there should be discussions of the kinds of disasters that one can expect, especially during a time of climate change. It’s quite possible that a tornado can go through a community and completely wipe out the sewage treatment plant, a safe water treatment plant, or a hospital. How will the community meet that disaster? That’s my suggestion. Or that report that we produced that suggested a chief scientist for every governor. You then have someone you know you can call on who will know what the resources are for the nearby states or for states that can provide some assistance and some aid.”

Watch the full discussion here.

Dr. Colwell is the 2024 Advocacy Award recipient for the Builders of Science Award, an award that recognizes distinguished scientists who have provided inspiration and determination in building or re-building an outstanding home for research. Register for this year’s Advocacy Awards and learn more about the 2024 honorees.