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Simulation of a Pandemic in the United States

Pitt Receives $10 Million from Gates Foundation to Help Stop Global Spread of Infectious Diseases

Vaccine Modeling Initiative will use computer models to determine most successful vaccine technologies to quickly control epidemics

PITTSBURGH, August 18, 2008 — To help select new vaccines that will have the best chances of stopping global infectious disease outbreaks, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health has received a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will fund the creation of computer simulations of epidemics, showing worst- and best-case outbreak scenarios, which will be used to evaluate new vaccine technologies and modes of vaccine delivery.

The Vaccine Modeling Initiative, a research partnership among infectious disease modeling teams at the University of Pittsburgh, The Pennsylvania State University and Imperial College London, is headquartered at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. The project also involves collaborations with leading infectious disease experts, computational modelers and public health officials at Johns Hopkins University, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Médecins Sans Frontières Epicentre, University of Georgia, Resources for the Future and the World Health Organization. The models they develop will be designed to fit the prevalence, incidence and geographic spread patterns of past epidemics in developing countries worldwide, and will help prevent future infectious disease epidemics by optimizing vaccine strategies for particular diseases and regions.

“Infectious diseases create an enormous burden on the world’s population, from both a human suffering and an economic development perspective,” said Donald S. Burke, M.D., principal investigator of the grant and dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “One of the major challenges we face in stopping infectious disease outbreaks is predicting how control strategies, such as vaccines, will work. By using computer models to conduct ‘epidemiology in silicon,’ we will be able to test the impact of new candidate vaccine technologies and select the most effective strategies.”

Initially, the project will focus on evaluation of new vaccine technologies for influenza, measles and dengue, a mosquito-borne infection, diseases that affect millions of people globally. Later, the project will develop vaccine models of epidemic pertussis, rotavirus, polio, pneumococcus, malaria and tuberculosis.

Project investigators will use high-powered computers to quickly perform complex calculations that simulate outbreak scenarios based on population size of a particular region or country, distribution of certain diseases and likelihood of a particular disease spreading. They will assess how differing vaccine strategies impact the spread of disease, essentially creating maps of disease and resultant treatment with vaccines. The goal is to guide public health experts across the globe in making decisions about vaccine strategies that have the most likelihood to succeed.    

The investigators also plan to use computer simulations to evaluate potential new vaccines that do not require refrigeration and can be delivered through the skin without conventional needles.

“Many infectious diseases are preventable by simple vaccination, yet children in poor countries die of these diseases because they lack access to vaccines,” said Dr. Burke. “By providing computer models to aid in decision-making, we will support efforts by the Gates Foundation and other partners to make vaccines safer and easier to administer and ultimately protect more children and adults against deadly infectious diseases.” 

The two co-principal investigators on the grant are Bryan Grenfell, Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University, and Neil Ferguson, Ph.D., Imperial College London.   

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) was founded in 1948. A member of the Association of Schools of Public Health, GSPH ranks third among schools of public health in National Institutes of Health funding.  For more information about GSPH, visit http://www.publichealth.pitt.edu/.

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