Technologically possible, data-driven, and worthy of our investment
In the recent issue of EMBO reports, Barbara Han of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and John Drake of the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology call for the creation of a global early warning system for infectious diseases. Such a system would use computer models to tap into environmental, epidemiological and molecular data, gathering the intelligence needed to forecast where disease risk is high and what actions could prevent outbreaks or contain epidemics.
An early warning system would shift the infectious disease paradigm from reactive — where first responders scramble to contain active threats, as in the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks — to pre-emptive management of risk. Infectious disease intelligence could assess vulnerabilities based on the ebb and flow of risk in real-time, and inform targeted responses that minimize damages.
“For far too long our main strategy for tackling infectious disease has been defense after emergence, when a lot of people are already suffering,” Han explained, “We are at an exciting point in time where technology and Big Data present us with another option, one that is anticipatory and has real potential to improve global health security.”
Han and Drake propose that a three-tiered system with “watches,” “warnings” and “emergencies” — like that used for severe weather alerts — would help decision makers and the public to make more informed decisions.
The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (Cary Institute), formerly known as the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, is an independent, not-for-profit environmental research organization dedicated to the scientific study of the world’s ecosystems and the natural and human factors that influence them.
Research is communicated in scholarly publications for scientific peers, educational programs for students and public audiences, and focused outreach to elected officials, policy makers, and the media.
Located in Millbrook, New York (USA), at the 2,000-acre (8.1 km2) Mary Flagler Cary Arboretum, the Cary Institute has about 120 employees, of which about 20 (including the core scientific staff, and post-doctoral researchers) are scientists with Ph.D.’s in ecology and allied fields. While the Cary Institute is not itself a degree-granting institution, numerous graduate students are trained under the mentorship of the scientific staff who have adjunct appointments at many universities. The Cary Institute has hosted research experiences for undergraduates since 1987.
The Cary Institute is organized as a 501c3 corporation with financial support from multiple sources which include the Mary Flagler Charitable Trust, research and education grants from federal and state sources (e.g., the National Science Foundation, United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institutes of Health), private foundations, and private donors.